“In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.” - Robert Lynd
Many cultures have been fascinated by birdsong with some choosing to imitate it and others choosing to study it. A lot of scientists wonder why birds sing. To study birdsong, they can represent the calls graphically and, with the help of graphics, we can sometimes better understand birdsong.
So why do birds sing?
The Scientific Reasons for Birdsong
When it comes to making sounds with their mouths, birds don’t have the same organs as humans. While we use our larynx and vocal cords to sing or speak, birds use an organ known as the syrinx.
The syrinx is like a small ball and can be found on the interior of the trachea.
This gives birds two “voices”. Scientists have studied this phenomenon and worked out how they can produce two sets of sounds.
There are two fine membranes attached to the syrinx that allows the birds to make two sounds at once.
Birdsong can reach up to 110 decibels, which is a similar volume to a car horn. Birds need to be heard from a distance. After all, they sometimes need to communicate with other members of their species across vast distances and also need to be heard over all the noises of other birds.
Why Do Birds Sing in the Morning?
As you may have noticed, birds are particularly noisy in the morning. They wake up at dawn and start singing, which is arguably one of the nicest things about being awake that early.
Most birds sing in the morning to mark their territory. Swallows, for example, will sing at dawn, especially when they’ve returned following migration to let others know that their nest is now occupied. Generally, it’s the males who sing more loudly than the females as they sing to both mark territory and to attract females.
There’s also another reason why birds sing in the morning; the sun is quite low and the meteorological conditions are ideal for spreading sound. The low temperatures and gentle breezes will help the sound carry in other directions.
Birds also sing in the morning because they’re busy throughout the day looking for food and building nests.
How Do Birds Make Themselves Heard?
When you hear birdsong, it can be difficult to work out which bird is making which call amongst the noise of all the other birds. However, if you listen carefully, you can often hear that there's a sort of rhythm amongst the cacophony of birdsong. Males will often wait for a pause in the noise to make their call. After all, you can be heard better when everyone else is quiet.
This results in a sort of hierarchy amongst the birds with the loudest at the top. The quieter birds have to wait their turn to sing.
Scientists have also observed that birds will alter their calls according to their environment. A bird in a forest will often find itself surrounded by foliage. While the leaves may dampen the sound, they can also use them to their advantage. They can strategically use them to echo the sound of their call. This allows them to project their song further and be heard better. Birds in fields, for example, will use shorter calls.
Being heard is an essential part of a bird’s survival and most birds have adapted to be heard as well as possible.
Different species have different songs, which also allows birds to identify one another amongst all the noise of bird calls.
How Do Birds Learn to Sing?
Despite being so good at it, birds aren’t born with the ability to sing. While the chicks may make sounds, they’re not the structured and identifiable calls but rather like babies when they coo.
Birds learn to sing from their parents. Robins, sparrows, swallows, and nightingales will all learn the basics of singing in the first months of their lives. This learning process can sometimes take up to a year to complete.
Chicks can take anywhere between three and twelve months to fully understand how to sing. The first stage involves using their first sounds. After that, they learn more structured songs known as plastic songs before arriving at the song-crystallisation period. Each of these steps is essential for chicks as they learn how to use their voice.
Studies by Thorpe and Marler in the late-1950s showed that a chick that didn’t go through these stages would sing but in a manner less complex than that of their parents. They also found that birdsong differs within species depending on their geographical location. This is a bit like birds having accents or regional dialects. In particular, they noticed that the bullfinches in the Azores could not be understood by members of the same species in Portugal.
Some species of birds take on characteristics of other species through imitation. The parrot is the most obvious example as they can reproduce the sounds of other birds and also humans.
What Birdsong Is Used For
As we mentioned earlier, birdsong is vital for many species’ survival. It's used for communicating with others for mating calls, warnings, and navigating.
Attracting a Mate
One of the primary functions of birdsong is to attract a mate during mating season. For example, the barn swallow will sing as loud as possible to attract a female. Upon hearing the call, interested females will approach the male. Upon sealing the deal, so to speak, they’ll head to his nest. For these species, without birdsong, they cannot attract mates.
Marking their Territory
Birdsong is also used by males to mark their territory against other males seeking to steal their nests. They let out a powerful call, usually in the morning, to remind others of their territory before heading out to seek food. Again, this is a loud and powerful call to impress or scare off competitors.
Birds will also let out a specific call when in danger or when they spot a predator to alert other members of their species. This type of call is essential as it can allow others to seek refuge or flee.
Forging Bonds with Other Birds
Birds use their song to communicate with other birds, especially when flocking. Their calls, which are often unique to their species, allow them to find and integrate into groups.
Finding One Another in Thick Vegetation
It can be tricky to find one another in forests. Since they can’t see one another, they’ll rely on their voices to call out to other birds. This means they can rejoin their flock or find their nest more easily.
Migratory birds often group together for long journeys. Sometimes, some birds will lose their flock. They can call out to one another to rejoin the flock.
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