The Incredible Diversity Of Bird Songs

By 5 m read
Bird Songs - Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) - (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) – (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

I don’t ask for the meaning of the song of a bird or the rising of the sun on a misty morning. There they are, and they are beautiful. ~ Pete Hamill

 

Bird Songs Are Everywhere

Lucky for us, birds are noisy creatures. But not all of them and not all the time. Come spring, however, most bird species make themselves known through their songs.

 

One of the most spectacular vocal displays of birds singing is the so-called dawn chorus.

 

It starts about an hour before sunrise with a few birds (birds with larger eyes are thought to start earlier due to better vision in low light) and then it builds and builds. What’s really interesting is that a lot of birds use different songs at dawn than during the rest of the day…while other birds might use the same song, but sing it faster.

 

The Best Time To Enjoy Bird Songs

Get up early on a sunny, windless day in May/June, go to your favorite “happy place” in nature, and listen. It’s absolutely mind boggling how many birds you’re able to hear! Enjoy this wonderful gift from nature. It sometimes feels that their singing is just for you.

 

Of course it’s not. But what are they saying? Who are they talking to? Why do they sound like that? Again, whenever you have a chance to spend some quality time in nature, observe and ask yourself questions, think like a child.

 

The other day I heard from a person (who does bird banding) that a deaf child asked if there are deaf birds. What a brilliant question! She posted this question on a birding message board about a week ago and nobody came up with a good answer. I’ll revisit this topic in Part 2 of this series, in Bird Vocalizations.

 

So how do baby birds learn their songs? They either learn by listening to their parents or just simply are born knowing the correct song. Some birds change theirs songs over time, while others develop local dialects.

 

One of the coolest things I learned about birds and their songs is that baby birds can listen to their parents while still in the egg and some even “talk back” through the shell. By the time they hatch, they’re already very familiar with the sound of their parents.

 

I often ask myself how birds actually hear themselves and each other. We already know that they see in a wider color spectrum then we do and we also know that they can also differentiate the harmonic quality of a bird song far better than humans. But what about the speed? How do they perceive the song? My favorite example is the haunting song of the Veery (Catharus fuscescens) that you can hear in moist deciduous woods. We can hear with our ears that something sounds slightly different than a “normal” bird song.  Listen here:

 

 

But what if we slow it down? Something incredible happens…something eerie. Listen here:

 

 

That eerie Veery song gives me goosebumps every time. Just because we think something sounds a certain way doesn’t mean it sounds this way to the intended recipient. We know that this is the case with colors, so why not with sounds? And how about time? Do we all perceive time in the same way? Or do a 60-year-old person and a 3-month-old dragonfly feel that the same time has passed?

 

And that’s what life is all about. Whenever you get a chance, step away from Google and Wikipedia, and step outside to listen, observe, marvel, and ask yourself questions.

 

Most birds learn their songs just as we learn our language…by listening, memorizing, and practicing. Birds just learn it within their first 90 days of life!

 

One of the more common birds in our area, the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), is a so-called open-ended learner. These birds learn and use new songs throughout their adulthood. It’s tempting to “bird by ear” and identify a bird solely by a song or call. But I’ve been fooled plenty of times by birds mimicking other birds. I have a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) in my backyard that starts nearly every phrase with a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) call. And we humans are not the only ones that are fooled. It’s thought that Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) sometimes imitate the call of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo  jamaicensis) in order to scare other birds away from bird feeders, so they’ll have it all to themselves.

 

But when it comes to imitating sounds, the Superb Lyre Bird (Menura novaehollandiae) is the undisputed rock star of mimicking. If you haven’t see this clip before, do yourself a favor, sit down, click on it, and I promise you’ll be blown away:

 

 

What’s your favorite bird song? As we’re not able to use spectrograms, try to come up with a phonetic text…what does it sound like it’s saying to you? Here’s the song of a Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia): “sweet-sweet-sweet ever-so-sweet”

 

 

There’s so much more to talk about with bird songs, calls, dialects, and on and on, that I decided to split this topic into two parts. My house windows are open while I’m writing this and I can hear the birds singing…so I gotta go and listen to them and come up with some more questions and maybe even some answers. See ya!

 

Do you enjoy nature? Check out a few more of our articles now!

 

Do you enjoy listening to bird songs? Let us know in the comments below!

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2 Comments
  • Mary Ellen Snyder
    May 21, 2019

    Thanks, loved it! Sharing with Lang Elliot, another passionate bird-listener. Check out his FB page or website!
    I’m working with him to use some of his recordings in my giant map project – see http://www.nsvc.us

    Cheers,

    Mary Ellen Snyder

    • maplewoodroad
      May 22, 2019

      Glad you enjoyed it & thanks so much for sharing! We really appreciate the support. 🙂 The Earthwalk project looks really cool! When & where will it be located?