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How do Birds Make Songs & Calls?

Updated on June 5, 2016

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For the meanings of bird parts which you do not understand in this Hub, see my bird glossary.

If what you want is not in there, please let me know so that I can add it into the glossary.

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Birds display a remarkable medley of beautiful songs as well as specific buzzes, whistles and chips, or chirps. Most birds sing in the early morning, but some sing throughout the day. Others do not start presenting songs and sounds until night. They are nocturnal birds.

An image of a bird song

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c8/Birdbrain.svg/200px-Birdbrain.svg.png

Here is a view of how somebody pictured a song being learned inside a birds brain. (Hence the word "birdbrain".) Anyway, in simple terms, it is on a path through several parts (hemispheres) of the brain before it transmits to the throat.

Bird Song

The song is a complex arrangement of multiple notes produced in an audible arrangement. The why and how often a bird sings is controlled by its hormones. This links the main reason for the song to basically the time of the year.

A bird song functions mainly to establish and defend a nesting territory. For many breeds, the song also helps to appeal to a companion. It may even be a proud father (or mother) announcing young. This is usually done away from the nesting area though to be safe. In many species, only the males sing and so the female may listen to a male's song as a way to scope out his know-how. This may motivate her selection of a mate.

Western Meadowlark singing

Western Meadowlark from US FWS
Western Meadowlark from US FWS | Source

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse from USFWS
Ruffed Grouse from USFWS | Source

Controlled by the territory

Habitats influence the essence of a bird song. Birds of open non-urban areas usually have high-pitched songs or 'humming' sounds, associated with theatrical visual exhibits. Horned Larks, Bobolinks, meadowlarks and woodcocks sing their high-pitched courtship songs in midair.

In contrast, forest birds (such as the Ruffed Grouse and owls), generally have low-pitched voices that have greater carrying ability through dense vegetation. In the same way, bitterns, rails and other marsh birds that cannot perform visual acrobatics due to crowded marsh vegetation also have low-pitched voices.

Grove warblers (such as Blackburnians, Cape May and Bay-breasted) have high-pitched songs that seem to disagree with the rule that woodsy birds usually have elaborate, lower-frequency songs, but these warbler tones are useful for singing across the top of the forest canopy.












Who does the singing?

Generally, male songbirds do most of the singing. In the greater number of species, males use songs to authorize the nesting territory and allure a mate. While males sing and actively watch over the territory keeping it free from other trespassing males, females do most of the incubation. In some species, however, females also sing. For example: female Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals, Northern Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks and House Finches all sing songs that are as complex as male songs. Females of alternative species (such as Song Sparrows) occasionally sing in the winter, but they leave all of the singing to the male once the breeding period starts.

Female songs may be particularly helpful in alerting other females that the territory is inhabited. Some studies have shown that female Northern Orioles will only chase other female orioles from their territory. Likewise, male orioles usually only chase other males.

Bird songs at dawn

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/40/Marais_Provancher.ogv

Here are bird songs at dawn at Provancher Marsh. At least eleven species of birds can be heard along here plus one species of frog : Red-winged Blackbird, Marsh Wren, Warbling Vireo, Song Sparrow, Alder Flycatcher, Sora, Yellow Warbler, American Crow, Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow, Tree Swallow and Green frog.

Following Patterns

The daily pattern of bird songs starts on early spring mornings when an expected series of songsters begins the down chorus. Early in the season previous to raising their young, before the territory is well established and a mate is attracted, many songbirds start singing as the sun rises and keep singing until it sets. As the nesting season progresses and such responsibilities as incubation and keeping the chicks fed take more time, the number of hours spent on singing recedes.

Bird songs are commonly the most obvious in early morning. We usually awaken to them. They typically slow by noon, then pick up again at dusk. Thrushes, such as the American Robin, Wood Thrush and Veery, are well-known dusk songsters. The midday slump is consistent with the higher temperatures and greater winds, which conflict with carrying distance.

There is also a weather pattern. Sunlight decides the exact time a species starts to sing. On overcast days, for example, birds basically start singing a full hour later than they do on sunny mornings.

Generally, birds do not like to sing in neither rain nor powerful winds. Extremely cool weather may also reduce the amount of song or postpone the time of day when birds begin singing. In a similar way, excessive heat at midday causes birds to seek shelter in shady places until temperatures cool down. In comparison, humid weather may start vigorous singing and movement. *

When it rains, some birds sing a whisper song which can be heard at a distance of 20 yards or less. This quiet performance is similar to the general, or primary, songs and is often created by both males and females when they are in obscure places such as the hearts of shrubs and trees, where they search for cover during weather extremes. Incubating birds may sing this song while perched on the eggs. Whisper songs are known from birds such as American Goldfinch, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Gray Catbird, Warbling Vireo, Brown Thrasher and many other songbirds.

* These patterns are sure to change. Take for instance the Tropical Rain Forest. I am not sure, but I doubt that the rain keeps the birds there from singing. I have risen to birds singing, and then the thunderstorms started. As soon as the noise of the storm stopped, I would hear the birds begin singing again. This pattern went back and forth for about three hours. I did not know until the storm had stopped whether or not the birds had stopped during the storm, or if I simply did not hear the birds because of the noise of the storm and winds.

Bird in Rain Forest

This bird was bathing in a heavy downpour in the rain forest of Sinharaja, Sri Lanka.
This bird was bathing in a heavy downpour in the rain forest of Sinharaja, Sri Lanka. | Source

Here is a different bird singing a territorial song in the Tropical Rain Forest.

I found a sample to prove what I thought, but I was not positive of yet.

The sound below is not from the bird bathing in the photo at the right.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2b/Singing-in-the-Rain-Forest-How-a-Tropical-Bird-Song-Transfers-Information-pone.0001580.s001.ogg


The time of the year also counts

Season changes are another influence on the quantity of singing, the range of the singing season and the integrity of the bird song. Knowledgeable songbirds sing their most thorough songs early in the breeding period when they are tracking and guarding territories. The greatest pattern of songs takes place just ahead of laying eggs. Males that do not turn the heads of any mates will have extended singing into the spring.

Male songbirds never cease to sing during the incubation period, but the abundance of singing lessens throughout the incubation and may cease entirely once the eggs hatch. If a couple makes the nest over again after the first brood leaves the nest, the amount of song basically expands, replaced by a decrease as the birds move through the incubation and nesting term. In mid- to later summer, after the birds leave their nest, most adult songbirds shed their feathers and sing very little or not at all. As days minimize in the autumn and the day span compares to the previous, briefer spring days, bird songs may once again expand.

Why a song and call is more desirable from a bird than from a human

Other mammals, humans included, are able to generate their audible tones by passing air over vocal chords in the larynx, an expanded area situated at the upper ranges of the trachea (windpipe). On the opposite side, birds display their assorted phonetic melodies from the syrinx, which is located at the lower end of the trachea; it is here that each lung joins the bronchi. Birds in which the rare syrinx * is absent, like the Turkey Vultures, are practically non-vocal, giving merely an isolated hiss.

* The syrinx is the vocal organ of birds situated at, or near, the bifurcation {or where it splits into two parts or "forks"} of the trachea {when it enters} into the bronchi. (Dictionary)

The squarish syrinx supports elastic, amplifying membranes, and operates as a vibrating pocket. The shape of the syrinx is modified by using tendons that can stretch it in almost any shape or form to help adjust the vibration. These muscles decide the complication of the song, and as a typical rule, the more "stretch power" that the syrinx has attached to its insides, the more elegant the song. For instance, pigeons have only a single set of syringeal (which is of, or relating to, the syrinx) muscles. While more experienced songsters may have up to nine groups of muscles.

It may not be only the muscles in the syrinx which help the bird to sing. Between humans and birds there are familiar parallels such as both the syrinx and the larynx produce sound when air is forced through the trachea, causing thin membranes to vibrate. The syrinx appears to be a much better sound generator than the larynx. The syrinx is vastly productive, it produces sound from practically all of the air which enters and leaves it. The larynx, on the other hand, only uses approximately two percent of air that leaves.

Now let us get into what is called 'duetting'. Because the syrinx sits directly on top of the two bronchi tubes, the two lungs enter the one syrinx separately, each bronchi with its own series of vibrating membranes. Because of this, birds are able to perform two isolated tones simultaneously. Duetting of thrushes is a sample of this. Songbirds are even long-winded, you might say. They are able to sing with one side of the syrinx while taking small, brief, breaths on the other side.

Schematic drawing of a birds' syrinx

 * 1 last free cartilaginous tracheal ring     * 2 Tympanum    * 3 first group of syringeal rings    * 4 Pessulus    * 5 Membrana tympaniformis lateralis    * 6 Membrana tympaniformis medialis    * 7 second group of syringeal rings    * 8 main bronch
* 1 last free cartilaginous tracheal ring * 2 Tympanum * 3 first group of syringeal rings * 4 Pessulus * 5 Membrana tympaniformis lateralis * 6 Membrana tympaniformis medialis * 7 second group of syringeal rings * 8 main bronch | Source

Why are some birds unable to sing?

The unmatched pitch and assortment of birds' melodies have long been involved with the complicated tendons of the syrinx. Storks, New World Vultures, and other birds unable to use their syringeal muscles are intensely reserved within the area of voices they are able to manage. The intricacy of the sryingeal fibers is a valuable element which separates the two critical categories between "order" and "family". (These are in taxonomy, with family being the lower category.) The two categories are oscines and suboscines which are within the genre of Passeriformes or songbirds. The suboscines resemble the nonpasserines since they possess less intricate syringeal fibrous than the other songbirds.

Windpipe & air sacs of A. Kestrel

airsacs of a Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) 1 cervical air sac, 2 clavicular air sac, 3 cranial thoracal air sac, 4 caudal thoracal air sac, 5 abdominal air sac (5' diverticels into pelvic girdle), 6 lung, 7 trachea, A clavicula (furcula), B cora
airsacs of a Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) 1 cervical air sac, 2 clavicular air sac, 3 cranial thoracal air sac, 4 caudal thoracal air sac, 5 abdominal air sac (5' diverticels into pelvic girdle), 6 lung, 7 trachea, A clavicula (furcula), B cora | Source

Birds that have long windpipes

Birds with strong breastbones and necks, such as Whooping Cranes and Trumpeter Swans, have large windpipes. The Whooping Crane has the 5-foot windpipe mainly curled up within the breastbone. A long windpipe acts as an air booster to display low-pitched vibrations. Birds that have short windpipes generally have high-pitched melodies.




Snipe in courtship flight

Common snipe in flight using tail feathers to produce mating call
Common snipe in flight using tail feathers to produce mating call | Source

Sounds outside of the syrinx

Some of the all-time bird vocalists have two or more sets of vibrating membranes situated both inside and outside of the syrinx. Not every bird sound rises from within the syrinx, still and all. Take these examples: Woodcocks have hardened and compressed wing feathers. When wind passes between these feathers on male's courtship during upward flight movement, they present a delightful, high-pitched twittering melody. Snipes use slotted tail feathers to make sound, which is called "winnowing". While Ruffed Grouse use their wings to press air adjacent to their chest.


Have you heard of mimics? No, not mimes.

There are birds that can imitate other birds' songs and calls. There are even some birds which can sound the same, or better than, non-bird sounds: such as train whistles, sirens, creaking wheelbarrows, barking dogs...

Surely you have heard of, maybe even seen, the Northern Mockingbird. They are the best-known in the mimic world. Though there are others, the Brown Thrashers, Common Crows, European Starlings, Blue Jays and a few bird sounds are copied by several other birds. The list is too long to go into because practically every species that you look up will copy a sound or two of another bird, but there are not a lot of them that mimic non-bird sounds.

It has even been shown by computerized analogies that bird mimicry is so precise that no one can tell the bird sounds from the true sounds.

Birds like the Marsh Wren use their syrinx to mix and create various phrases which are arranged in irregular order.

Here is a table showing what I believe some mimics can do.

Species
Time
Amount imitated
A few samples
Misc.
Northern Mockingbirds
One hour
Fifty-five species
Songbirds, screaming eagles, crowing roosters, drumming of woodpeckers on metal roofs; plus non-bird sounds
 
Marsh Wrens
Forty-five minutes
Two hundred ten
Varied phrases
 
Brown Thrashers
One hour
Two thousand
Record for varied phrases
Close relatives of mockingbirds
Listed above are records of a few mimics that I have heard about.

Is it safe for birds to sing? Not everywhere nor all of the time.

Even though they have certain calls which are meant to deter predators, songs may do just the opposite if the bird is not careful. Usually they observe their territory before they settle down to sing. Being either far enough away from cover so that they will see movement, or else hiding themselves deep in cover so that they are unlikely to be found.

One of the deeper worries which birds have is in training their young to avoid singing before they leave the nest. Which is why the mother, (or sometimes the father), is watching the nest practically 24/7. The other parent, basically the male, forages for food and sings.

Odd singer(s).


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Author: Kevin - ©2013

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© 2013 The Examiner-1

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    • The Examiner-1 profile image
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      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      I hope that HP knows that I thank them for giving this Hub the Editor's Choice Award.

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      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      It was pleasing what you thought and to hear your votes.Thank you. I hope that you have a nice day too. :-) I am about to read my email and I believe that you had a new one in there.

      Kevin - May the birds fly free!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      Another wonderful and interesting hub Kevin ; voting up and sharing while wishing you a great day.

      Lots of love from Wales.

      Eddyu.

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      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      I can give you a few tips Marlene. Placing feeders no farther than 10' away from dense trees & shrubs plus brush piles helps. Hanging the feeders under umbrellas, awnings and on lower branches so there is a 'canopy' of leaves above, each help. Birds that feed on the ground are more vulnerable so it is best to keep all of the feeders above the ground. Place decals on widows so that small birds are not easy prey by hitting windows and becoming stunned. The birds mostly taken are the weak, sick or older ones. Unfortunately, we cannot help them.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 3 years ago from Northern California, USA

      Great idea, Kevin (about keeping the larger birds away). I live out in the middle of the country and we do have owls and hawks around here. I'll have to read up on how to keep them away.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
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      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      We can always try to help the smaller birds by doing what is possible to keep the larger birds, such as hawks and owls, out of our yards.

      Kevin

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 3 years ago from Northern California, USA

      This is fascinating. I enjoy the sound of the birds singing, but it's sad that the little birds have to curtail their singing for fear of being attacked.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
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      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      Dolores

      I have just published that idea that you gave me a little while back. Let me know if it is any help to you!

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
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      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      Thank you Dolores you have just given me a great idea!

      Kevin

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 3 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I have been trying to learn various bird songs so that I can identify birds in the woods, or if I have just heard the song. It isn't as easy as I thought. One night, sitting out very late, I heard the tone change in the birds that were singing at night, mostly, I guess, mockingbirds. We had not realized how late it was. Dawn was coming and the light began to change after the bird song changed.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
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      The Examiner-1 4 years ago

      Thank you for stopping by. Usually, in early Spring, the birds sing to attract a mate and after that the singing stops - or at least minimizes - while they breed. This year the weather seems to be different and may have an effect on the birds too. About a week ago I heard a flock of geese fly past and 2-3 weeks ago the birds that hang around here began to diminish.

    • retired06 profile image

      Leona J Atkinson 4 years ago from Oregon, USA

      Very interesting Hub. All Spring I enjoyed waking to the sound of a Western Meadowlark singing in the meadow next to my home. Then he/she was gone. I wondered why...maybe the season? Anyhow, I miss hearing that beautiful sound. Now, since late summer, all I hear are the cries of crows. Very annoying sounds they make. :( and I pray for the little songbirds to return.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
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      The Examiner-1 4 years ago

      Oh, I did not realize that. Thank you for pointing it out.

      I just read your Hub on superfoods. Wow.

    • susi10 profile image

      Susan W 4 years ago from The British Isles, Europe

      I am certain that it takes a hub about 24 hours to go through the Quality Assessment Process and get featured. However, when you publish a hub, it goes live automatically.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
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      The Examiner-1 4 years ago

      Thank you for your reply. I did not expect a comment so soon. I thought it took 24 hours for the Hub to be posted.

    • susi10 profile image

      Susan W 4 years ago from The British Isles, Europe

      Wow, very interesting hub and I now know a lot more about bird singing. Voted up and sharing.