do birds sing in tune

One of the surest and most welcome signs of spring is the sound of birdsong drifting from the trees and bushes. But to birds, these songs arent just an expression of joy. Theyre serious business, a crucial part of how songbirds find mates, defend territories, and pass on their genes. Birds have a specialized bit of vocal anatomy called the syrinx, a special organ located right where the windpipe branches to connect to the two lungs. (Its roughly equivalent to the human larynx, but our larynx is located further up, in the throat.) About 4,000 of the worlds roughly 10,000 bird species are classified in the suborder Passeri — the “songbirds,” in which the syrinx is especially well-developed, allowing them to produce complex and beautiful sounds. These birds can even control each side of their syrinx independently, allowing them to produce two different notes at the same time. Birdsongs serve two main purposes for their singers: to defend territories and woo mates. Songs often carry long distances and display the singers health and vigor, warning away potential competitors and attracting potential partners. Although we often hear the most singing during the breeding season, birds that defend territories year-round may sing at any time of year. Young birds typically learn their songs by listening to and imitating adults. Because songs are passed down from one generation to the next, species can even have regional dialects, with noticeable differences between individuals songs depending on where theyre from. As you may have noticed, birds do most of their singing around dawn, a phenomenon that may start as early as 4 a.m. and is known as the dawn chorus. Ornithologists arent really sure why birdsong peaks at this time, but it may be a way to make use of a time of day that is too dark for good foraging, or just a “warm up” session to help birds ensure theyre singing as well as possible throughout the day.

And although we generally think of male birds as being the ones that sing, recent research is making ornithologists and birds reconsider that assumption — more on that below.

Are there dialects, where different regions of the same species use different tunings and intervals? If so, is this due to genetic variation or are the birds imitating other birds or sounds they hear? Have there been instances of birds being influenced by the standard tunings of human music in that region? For example, do they use certain standards between frequencies, like we have whole steps, fifths, octaves, etc.? Do they use different tunings? If so, is there a standard for certain species, with all the birds using the same?

I apologize for asking so many questions back-to-back and for using incorrect terminology. I’ve been a guitar player for a long time, but I honestly only know very basic music theory, and I have no idea what birds are. Archived post. New comments cannot be posted and votes cannot be cast.

Types of Bird Sounds American Robin at mountain ash. Photo by Jennifer Bosvert/Shutterstock

Many birds not only sing, but also make a variety of calls. These vocalizations are typically shorter and simpler, though some species have rudimentary songs that are actually more straightforward than their calls. Birds use calls to quickly communicate with one another and to indicate danger or one’s location. Here is the American Robin’s song, for instance, which consists of a succession of distinct, lovely, rising and falling syllables that are heard all over North America. Ted Floyd, XC364638. Accessible at www. xeno-canto. org/364638.

In contrast, this is one of the many calls of this species, which is sometimes referred to as a “whinny” or “chirr.” Depending on the situation, these calls can convey a variety of meanings. Ted Floyd, XC361931. Accessible at www. xeno-canto. org/361931.

Additionally, robins have a shorter call known as “chuck” or “tuk,” which is usually used as an alarm to ward off predators. Ted Floyd, XC364119. Accessible at www. xeno-canto. org/364119.

Here’s another call from an American Robin: a high-pitched, thin “see” that typically signals the approach of hawks and other aerial predators. (Check out Bobby Wilcox, XC736763, the next time you hear this sound!) Accessible at www. xeno-canto. org/736763.

Of course, this is only a small sampling of the enormous variety of sounds that birds are capable of producing. Given that we’re discussing songbirds and bird songs, how about we spend a little time with the Musician Wren of South America, whose eerie, melodic song is possibly among the most exquisite in the entire bird kingdom? George Wagner, XC521253 Accessible at www. xeno-canto. org/521253.

New Research on Birdsong

The definition, application, and meaning of birdsong are all continually being refined by ornithologists.

Not all researchers agree on how exactly to define song and what makes song different from other bird vocalizations such as calls. No single characteristic of what we think of as birdsong — the time of year that birds do it, the way birds learn to do it, its complexity, or even its role in sexual selection — is consistent across all so-called songbirds. Some ornithologists are now arguing that rather than thinking of “songs” and “calls” as two totally separate categories, we should think of them as existing along one continuum, and that researchers need to give more thought to the specific questions theyre trying to answer when they say theyre studying “songs.”

Regardless of how exactly scientists define what is and isnt a song, its becoming clear that birds themselves perceive birdsong much differently from the way we do. When a bird hears another bird sing, its not focusing on the beautiful melody, but on tiny variations in amplitude and frequency that may be undetectable by human ears.

Current research on captive zebra finches has revealed that while they are excellent at identifying these minute acoustic details in each other’s songs, they have trouble identifying songs that have been modified in a way that wouldn’t confuse humans, like changing the entire song to a higher or lower register. Birds’ quick, tiny variations in sound waves could contain information about the sex, age, health, and other characteristics of the singers. , which can be picked up by other birds.

And that idea that its male birds who need to sing to defend territories and attract females? Not so fast. In recent years, ornithologists have turned fresh attention to female song. Female song has been documented in 70 percent of songbird species, but its especially prevalent in birds that live in the tropics, which helps explain why its been overlooked. The birds of Europe and North America have historically been much more thoroughly studied than their tropical counterparts.

Like males, females sing to communicate with their mates and to defend their territories. Actually, female songbirds most likely sang in a common ancestor of all current songbird species, so the real question may be why some modern species no longer have female songbirds. This recent study on female song was primarily driven by women, demonstrating how exposing science to underrepresented groups can challenge preconceived notions and yield novel insights.


Do birds sing in a certain key?

Authors including Rothenberg have claimed that birds sing on traditional scales as used in human music, but at least one songbird does not choose notes in this way.

Do birds have a perfect pitch?

Readers may be delighted or humbled to discover that the mastery of absolute pitch can be found in songbirds (which have brains weighing a gram or less). It is also more democratically distributed.

Do birds sing in harmony?

When two or more people sing together, they can create harmony by producing different notes at the same time. Astonishingly, many songbirds can create harmony without another bird to back them up, all on their own. That’s thanks to the amazing vocal organ found in most birds, the syrinx.

Do birds learn to sing some songs?

Almost no songbirds know their songs by instinct. Rather, most need to learn to sing. Songbirds begin learning songs as nestlings by hearing the songs of adults nearby. In this way, song traditions (known to biologists as “memes”) are passed down in songbird neighborhoods from year to year.