Why do Birds Sing? Unravelling Nature’s Secret Symphony

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Whether you’re strolling through the garden or exploring the outdoors, you will notice how every bird song sounds a little bit different.

From the croaky caws of the crows, to the wistful-sounding coos of the Mourning Dove and even Common Grackle’s rusty gate-like calls – each bird has its unique symphony. 

Common Grackle Bird Sings
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula). Image by Ed Rizer via Flickr

What motivates birds to ‘sing’?

What is the motivation behind the great natural orchestra of bird song and calls? 

Bird vocalizations are broadly categorized into two types: songs and calls.

Songs are structured and complex vocalizations with melodies that even Mozart could appreciate. The primary reason birds sing is to defend their territory and to attract a mate. For the most part, only the males produce bird songs. There are exceptions to this though, particularly within tropical species, where some female birds sing and even duet with their male counterparts. 

Why some birds don’t sing

In fact, only birds that have a syrinx – a highly developed vocal organ – can sing. 

Unlike the larynx, the human (and mammal) voice box that sits higher up in the throat, the syrinx is located where the windpipe branches to connect the two lungs. This gives it a paired structure which allows some birds to produce more than one sound simulatenously. Imagine being able to sing your two favorite songs at the same time! 

Birds, like New World vultures, lack this singing organ and so can’t make bird songs. Instead, they make throaty hisses and grunts.

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). Image by Mark Heatherington via Flickr

Mastering bird song melodies

Much like how we learn to speak as a child, young birds master the art of singing through listening and copying their parents and other birds. 

Each species passes down their songs from one generation to the next. As a result, bird songs can often have ‘regional dialects’, with one species singing slightly differently from one location to another. 

What’s different about bird ‘calls’?

These are shorter and simpler vocalizations that a bird produces instinctively and does not need to learn externally. Although mainly male birds sing, both females and males produce calls.

Check out this Great Tit showing off a variety of his bird calls on one of our Nest Box Live cams:

As we’ve learnt, bird song usually coincides with mating and territory defending. However, there are various other scenarios when a bird will need to use a call:

Alarm Calls

For example, birds often use an alarm call. This is to warn other birds that a threat, like a sky-borne predator, is approaching. Many bird species have similar alarm calls and so different species can understand and benefit from each other’s calls. 

A common type of call (and one you may have heard if you have seen our nest box live videos!) is a begging call. Young chicks use this to tell their parents ‘feed me!‘.

Barn Swallow Chicks Begging
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) chicks. Image by Dominik Siegmund via Flickr

Attention calls

What we often don’t realize is: the chick’s parents also use a call during feeding. This is a feeding call and it tells the chicks to open their beaks, if they haven’t already.

Lastly, another common bird call is a contact call. Birds use these calls to ‘stay in touch’ and know where each other are.

Take a look at this Eastern Bluebird demonstrating how she uses a contact call, probably directed towards her male mate.

Click here to find out more about the Nesting Behaviors of Eastern Bluebirds.

You’re likely to hear contact calls within flocks of flying birds, for example, groups of ‘honking’ geese.

Despite being shorter and less complex, bird calls can often be as recognisable as a bird’s song. Take the Black-capped Chickadee with its distinguished ‘chickadee-dee-dee’ contact call. 

The importance of listening to bird song

The world of avian communication is intricate and fascinating. Taking the time to listen a little deeper to our feathered friends can tell us not only what bird we are hearing, but what it is trying to say.

So, the next time you find yourself outdoors, take a moment to listen and decode the secrets hidden in the bird songs and calls of our avian companions.

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