As spring arrives in full force, you might find yourself hearing more birds singing. While the sound is often beautiful, birdsong doesn’t exist for our benefit. So why do birds sing, anyway?
While humans sing for fun and entertainment, birdsong is more like human speech: it’s a form of communication. However, birds communicate a lot differently than we do—here’s how and why they sing to each other.
How Birdsong Is Created
One bird can singlehandedly create a song thanks to something called a syrinx. While humans have voice boxes, birds have syrinxes—a vocal organ that’s unique to birds. No other animal has one.
Humans, and most animals that vocalize, use a larynx, which is where our vocal cords are found. Birds do have larynxes, but they produce sound using their syrinxes, which gives them special vocal abilities.
The syrinx is named for Syrinx, a nymph of Greek mythology who was turned into a musical instrument. The organ itself works similarly to a larynx, but has some distinctive capabilities: for example, it allows some birds to produce two notes at the same time. That’s why a single bird can sound so musical.
Using the syrinx, birds produce melodious songs in sequences that are repeated over and over again, like the riff of a famous tune. Birds do make other non-song calls too, and some types of birds don’t sing at all—but those that do are often famous for their songs.
Like humans who play music, most birds learn their songs by listening to another bird’s song, memorizing it, and practicing it. While most animals are born knowing all the sounds they’ll ever need, birds learn songs in much the same way humans learn to talk.
The Reasons for Birdsong
Now that we know how birds create music, why do they sing? There are a few different reasons—let’s break it down.
To Find a Mate
A lot of birds only sing during the mating season. Many species mate in the spring, which is why you often hear more birdsong in springtime: a song is one way for birds to attract mates.
In many species, only the male birds sing—the song helps demonstrate their desirability to a female. These male birds often perch on high branches to help the song carry as far as possible. However, in a few species, the males and females sing duets as part of the mating ritual.
Mating songs help indicate that the singer is strong, healthy, and of mating age—birds that are too young won’t have mastered the right songs. And In birds that sing duets, singing together can help strengthen the bond between a mating pair.
To Establish Territory
Songs also help a bird establish and defend its territory. Birds can show their strength through singing more complicated songs, or louder ones. If a bird wants to challenge another bird’s territory, it’ll listen to the song first to figure out how tough the defender is.
To Communicate with Their Eggs
Many birds sing to their eggs, and research shows there may be more to this process than just teaching unhatched birds the songs of their species. For example, some birds seem to warn their young about climate change-induced temperature rises before they hatch. This suggests that song could be an essential part of bird adaptation.
Other Things We Don’t Understand
There may be other reasons birds sing, although research hasn’t confirmed these theories yet.
For example, some people theorize that birds might sing simply for the fun of it. There’s also the fact that birds often sing at dawn—we’re not quite sure why, but figuring it out could someday help us understand more about why birds sing in general.
Birdsong is beautiful, but it’s even more fun to listen to once you realize how unique it is. No other animal in the world has a syrinx, so no other animal can sing like a bird. And through song, birds can communicate not just with other adult birds, but also with the next generation, even before they hatch.
Want to learn to identify different types of birdsong? That’s easier now than ever—there’s actually an app for that.