Robin singing in tree

Bird songs

No other animals can produce so many sounds, and for so many different purposes

Find out more about how and why birds sing, as well as the natural phenomenon of the dawn chorus

 

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.

Wren singing on a branch

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.

Enjoy the dawn chorus: gardens

The fast trill of the wren is one of the most distinctive sounds of the dawn chorus.

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Wren singing on a branch

Music to your ears

As you listen, can you work out which bird is singing? We've created a handy audio guide so that you can get to know the different bird songs.

You can also get to know the birds that sing near you with our brilliant Bird Identifier. And, if you just can't get enough of the beautiful sound of bird song, you can enjoy it wherever you go by tuning in to Birdsong Radio.

 Dunnock singing from on top a gorse bush, Co. Durham