Meet the World’s 10 Greatest Singing Birds

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A bluethroat singing
Image by Lynn Griffiths via Flickr.

Almost half, some 4,000 (give or take), of all the world’s birds are songbirds. 

Songbirds create elaborate and complex songs that can be used to impress and attract mates. 

The best time to hear singing birds is at dawn. Also known as the “Dawn Chorus”, the morning air is filled with the serenading melodies of rivaling birds. 

To us, this dawn chorus is nothing short of peaceful. To birds, however, trying to outperform their neighbor through a sing-off is fiercely competitive. Afterall, they are not only attracting mates, but also defending territories. 

This article aims to explore the most impressive singing birds from around the globe. From the locally common Northern mockingbird, to the exotic Montezuma oropendola. 

What Is a Songbird?

Songbirds can be found across the globe – from the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia to the local park at the end of your road – and they all share similar traits. 

Firstly, songbirds belong to the order Passeriformes, or the passerines. 

Passerine birds are also referred to as perching birds. They have adapted to have three toes facing forward and one toe facing backwards, allowing them to securely grip onto the thinnest of branches. 

Passerine birds can be further separated into three distinct suborders – the largest of which is the Passeri. Birds in this suborder, also referred to as oscines, are the songbirds! To date, over 4,000 songbirds have been described by science. 

Unlike other bird species, songbirds have evolved a highly developed voice box, or syrinx,  allowing them to sing highly complex songs.

So, to recap, all songbirds are passerine birds, but not all passerine birds are songbirds. Still with me?

Why Do Birds Sing?

A singing wood thrush
Image by Lynn Adams via Flickr.

Chances are, we’ve all heard a bird sing. We go about our daily lives with the everpresent melodies of birdsong nearly wherever we go.

But have you ever stopped and wondered why birds sing? 

Sure, listening to the dawn chorus can be nice for us humans (unless it’s a rooster), but I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that birds don’t sing for us.

Instead, most birds sing to communicate with one another – either in the form of defending territories, attracting mates, or simply checking in with one another. 

This is also made possible with that special vocal organ – the syrinx – which sits where the trachea branches into the bronchi of the lungs. Every species of songbird has a slightly different syrinx, allowing for such a diversity of song calls and sounds. 

Each sound produced has a different function. So, what sounds like a beautiful song to us, could be a bird telling its neighbor to duck off (darn autocorrect). 

But, we won’t dwell too much on the hows and whys – if you want to learn more, check out our other article on how birds sing. Instead, let’s explore some of the most interesting singing birds. 

The 10 Most Impressive Singing Birds in the World

1. Superb Lyrebird 

The superb lyrebird is one of the largest songbirds. Found in Southeastern Australia, the lyrebird is famed for its elaborate courtship displays and excellent mimicry. 

Astonishingly, the vocal repertoire of the lyrebird is formed almost exclusively of the mimicked calls of other bird species. 

In fact, some male lyrebirds have been recorded singing the songs of over 20 other bird species – from the laughing cackle of the kookaburra to the high pitched whip call of the eastern whipbird. 

However, it’s not just bird calls the lyrebird has successfully mastered. Humanmade sounds, such as camera shutters, crying babies and chainsaws, are well within the vocal capabilities of the lyrebird. 

Males use this impressive sound knowledge alongside courtship dances to attract females. Males who are able to incorporate more songs into their displays, have higher chances of mating with females.

2. Northern mockingbird

A Northern mockingbird singing
Image by Mike Fluke via Flickr.

From an Australian mimic to one closer to home, the Northern mockingbird has been known to mimic the sound of nearby animals – most notably other bird species, including shrikes, blackbirds and jays. They have also been known to replicate the croak of a frog. 

While both males and females sing throughout their lives, it is often unmated males who sing the loudest and most persistent. 

Most of northern mockingbird’s songs are a series of whistles, rasps, scolds and trills. Each phrase is repeated 2 – 6 times, before a new song is produced. 

Like the lyrebird, song and sound production is key to female choice. A female will actively select males that can produce intricate and complex songs – an indicator of longevity and experience with raising previous clutches. 

These impressive singing birds have a large repertoire of sounds they can make for certain occasions. For example, if an intruder is nearby, both sexes can let out a series of 2-8 scratchy chat calls to ward them off. 

3. Wood Thrush 

A long-distance migrant, the wood thrush spends the spring and summer months breeding in deciduous and mixed forests of Eastern USA. 

They are a relatively secretive bird, preferring to hide away in the thick understory of shrubs and young trees. 

More often than not, you’ll be able to hear a wood thrush before seeing it. Their easily recognizable flute-like call of ee-oh-lay is the middle section of a three-part call. 

Think of this middle part of the call like a fingerprint – no two are the same. 

Although the calls are passed down from generation, or learnt from through their neighbors, each wood thrush creates a slightly new variation of the call. Coupled with the low notes of an introductory phrase and the high trill of the final phrase, a wood thrush can create over 50 distinct songs.

4. Montezuma oropendola

Montezuma oropendola perched
Image by Lynn Griffiths via Flickr.

A bird I am very familiar with, the oropendola is as beautiful as it is unique. 

The Montezuma oropendola is a New World tropical bird, native to Central America.

Although they are part of the blackbird family, who’s members consist of other impressive singing birds, they bear no resemblance to blackbirds. 

They have striking yellow tails that stand out in the gloom of their tropical rainforest home. However, it is their call that stands out the most. 

The song of a Montezuma oropendola is quite distinctive and can be described as a complex mix of melodious and mechanical elements. The bird is known for its loud and varied vocalizations, which are often used in its elaborate courtship displays.

The most characteristic sound of the oropendola is a unique bubbling/gurgling series of notes that can sound almost like a mix between liquid being poured and a series of musical notes, intertwined with laser-like sounds. 

This singing bird is an oddity for sure, but it has to be one of the most spectacular sounds throughout the whole rainforest .

5. Malabar whistling thrush

A strikingly blue, ground-dwelling bird the Malabar whistling thrush is native to the foothills and montane forests of India.

As the name suggests, their songs are a series of melodious whistles

As with other species on this list, the Malabar whistling thrush is more often heard than seen. However, so human-like are its calls, many listeners and researchers have been deceived as to their presence. 

Unlike a typical bird song, the Malabar whistling thrush does not have a uniform song. Instead, they have a two-note whistle – much like a whistling schoolboy (a nickname they’ve gained). 

The best time to hear these birds is at dusk and dawn, especially during the monsoon season of June – September. 

6. Greater Hoopoe-Lark

Found across North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, the Greater Hoopoe-Lark is a large desert lark species. 

Although it spends much of its time running along the desert floor, they do take to the skies during the mating season. 

Males rise with the use of fluttering wing strokes, followed by a dive to a nearby perch. During this courtship display, the males sing a variety of rising and falling notes, consisting of trilled whistles and clicks. They often emit these songs whilst performing their dramatic aerial dives. 

7. Musician wren 

A musical wren
Image by Guilherme Battistuzzo via Flickr.

For a bird with “musician” in the title, you know we’re in for a treat. 

And this little wren does not disappoint. 

Although coming in under 5 inches in length, the musician wren is famed for its unique song. Consisting of rich, fluting notes, this impressive singing bird also creates a song with different pitches of chirps and rattles. 

No wonder it’s been nominated for “most musical bird in the world”.

The musician wren is found in the lowland and foothill rainforests of the northern range of South America. 

To communicate with one another, pairs of musician wrens sing in antiphonal duets, whereby individuals sing in rapid alternation, with “rapid” being the key word. Sometimes, there is a gap of just a few milliseconds between responses. 

8. Sedge warbler

Compared to other warbler species, the song of the sedge warbler is a noisy, rambling warble. 

During mating season (late spring/early summer), the male sedge warbler introduces “random” phrases into his already strong repertoire. 

What seems like a random assortment of noise to us, is a carefully executed courtship behavior designed to win mates. Scientists hypothesize, like with other species on this list, the more complex the song, the higher the likelihood of a male mating. 

Males never sing the same song twice. So, you never really know what to expect from the song of a sedge warbler. 

Can Other Birds Sing?

An interesting question. 

The short answer, no. Only songbirds, or the oscines, can sing. 

However, this isn’t to say all other birds are mute. 

This is where songs and calls differ. 

Songs, typical with songbirds, are longer and more complex. They are often associated with territory, courtship and mating. 

Calls, on the other hand, can be made by many other bird species – from waterfowl to raptors. These sounds serve specific functions, including alarm calling. 

9. Leach’s storm petrel 

Although not a singing bird, the sounds a Leach’s storm petrel creates is nothing short of impressive. 

Much of their time is spent silently on the wing, far out at sea. However, during the summer nesting months, the otherwise still nighttime darkness is filled with eerie chattering, trilling and sputtering calls. 

These spooky sounds are often emitted from their burrows (that’s right, they nest in burrows within cliff banks) and can often be described as raucous purring. 

So, despite not being a singing bird, their sounds are pretty unique as a form of communication. 

10. Parrots

A pair of mitred parakeets
Image by Ingrid Taylor via Flickr, Instagram and Website.

Of course, as with everything in life, there are exceptions. Kind of. 

Parrots aren’t songbirds. However, like songbirds, they do possess a syrinx. 

Unlike songbirds, parrots don’t have particular songs hardwired into them. Instead, they learn a series of sounds from nearby sources. In captivity, this could be in the form of human song lyrics. 

This imitative vocal learning can be considered a social display of intelligence. It requires good hearing, memory and muscle control for sound production. These traits, rather than the song itself, may help females choose a suitable mate.

Final Thoughts 

Across the globe, a wide array of songbirds can be found – from deep within tropical rainforests, to your own back garden. 

Most songbirds have a unique song in which they alter and sing to impress mates. 

Those with the most complex songs are more likely to secure mating rights. 

Other bird species, such as parrots, raptors and seabirds, cannot be considered songbirds. However, they create impressive sounds nonetheless. 

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