Songbirds Have The Chops.

Songbirds learn their songs and perform them using a specialized voice box called a syrinx. Vocally, they’re in a league of their own. These adaptations have been remarkably successful—songbirds make up almost half of the world’s 10,000 bird species including warblers, thrushes, and sparrows. The vast majority of non-songbird species make simpler sounds that are instinctual rather than learned.

2. Birds sing to defend and impress

For a bird, singing can be draining. It is both energetically expensive and alerts predators. So then why do birds sing? Evidence suggests that in part, it is to proclaim and defend their territories. Studies have also shown that songs play a crucial role in attracting and impressing potential mates and may signal the overall health of the singer. As in humans, singing in birds is often a chance to show off.

3. Their repertoires include songs and calls

Why are some bird sounds referred to as songs and others as calls? Typically a song is defined as a relatively structured vocalization produced while attracting a mate or defending a territory. Calls tend to be shorter, less rhythmic sounds used to communicate a nearby threat or an individual’s location. Each species and individual has a variety of songs and calls used in different contexts that together make up its repertoire. While the distinction between calls and songs is not always clear, it can be quite ear opening to explore the full repertoires of your favorite songbirds.

Common Yellowthroats sing and call.

Common Yellowthroat photo by Mark Schwall

4. Hear a bird singing? It’s probably a male

Chances are when you hear a bird singing it’s a male. The majority of female songbirds in temperate zones use shorter, simpler calls while the males produce the longer and more complex vocalizations we think of as song. The story is different in the tropics where females commonly sing, and many species engage in duetting.

5. Songbirds are vocal gymnasts

The songbird syrinx makes vocal gymnastics possible–for example the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a able to sweep through more notes than are on a piano keyboard in just a tenth of a second. Because each branch of the songbird syrinx is individually controlled, the cardinal can start its sweeping notes with one side of the syrinx and seamlessly switch to the other side without stopping for a breath, making them the envy of human vocalists everywhere.

Northern Cardinals switch sides of their syrinx


INFORMATION COURSESY OF The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Northern Cardinal photo by Lindell Dillon,

6. Some sing two notes at once

Unlike humans, birds produce vocal sounds using a syrinx, an organ located where the trachea splits into two bronchial tubes. In songbirds, each side of the syrinx is independently controlled, allowing birds to produce two unrelated pitches at once. Some birds even have the ability to sing rising and falling notes simultaneously, like the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) in its final trill. We can only imagine what musical heights human vocalists could reach with abilities like that.

Wood Thrush trills are two-voiced


Wood Thrush photo by Corey Hayes,

7. Songbirds learn too

While some birds hatch knowing the songs they will sing as adults, the true songbirds have to learn how to communicate effectively. Songbirds begin learning their songs while still in the nest, a phase known as the critical period, when nestlings listen to the adults singing around them. Following fledging, young birds attempt to replicate these songs, practicing until they have matched their tutor’s song. Some songbirds, such as the catbirds, thrashers, and mockingbirds, learn to mimic other species—frogs, cats, and even car alarms.

8. Songbirds have local dialects

Just as humans have regional accents, some bird species develop distinct, area-specific dialects. Such variation in song often arises when populations of the same species are isolated by geographic features such as mountains, bodies of water, or stretches of unsuitable habitat. These local dialects are then passed on to the next generation of young birds, which hear the songs being performed by their father and other local males. After many generations, the birds from one area can sound quite different from those the next mountain over.

9. They sing at dawn (we’re not sure why)

Birds are often up before dawn singing their hearts out and adding their voices to the dawn chorus. But why do many species sing more intensely at dawn than they do at any other time of the day? Many of the songs heard at dawn are thought to function as warnings given by male birds in defense of their territory and mate. While the dawn chorus is a common phenomenon wherever birds live, little is known about why birds concentrate their efforts during these early hours.

INFORMATION COURSESY OF The Cornell Lab of Ornithology