Abstract image representing bird songs

Bird songs - make some noise

Why do birds sing?

Bird songs are common sounds to us all, but why do birds sing? Imagine you're a male willow warbler, and you’ve just flown 2,400 miles (4000 km) from Africa. It's spring, and you need to find a mate quickly. However, your home is a woodland and you’re the colour of leaves. What better way of advertising to a passing female that you are here and would make a fine father for her chicks than by having a clear, loud and recognisable song?

However, song also has another, just as important, function. Most songbirds will need to hold down a territory, so song is a way of staking ownership and telling other males to steer clear.

Technically, only the group of birds called 'songbirds' sing - warblers, thrushes, finches and the like. What sets songbirds apart is they actually learn, practice and perfect their songs, whereas the calls of other birds are hard-wired into them from birth, and they don’t perfect them.

As in so many things in life, there are some blurred edges to this definition of song. For example, some songbirds such as starlings and goldfinches also like to sing as a group, while our beloved robin sings all winter - males and females - in order to defend feeding territories.

Hear the willow warbler

Patrik Åberg

Hear the robin

Patrik Aberg

How do birds sing?

How do birds achieve such volume, control and complexity to their songs? It’s only in recent years that the mechanism has been pinned down.

Just as we squeeze air from our lungs through the small gap between two vibrating flaps at the back of our throat (the larynx), birds do likewise but further down the air canal, where the air tubes split to go to the lungs. It’s an organ called the syrinx, named after the Greek word for panpipes.

But here’s the clever bit: birds have two sets of flaps and can make a different noise with each set simultaneously. Add in the fact that some birds have air sacs surrounding the syrinx to amplify the sounds, and it is no wonder their sounds can seem so rich.

Male siskin singing



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