A bird’s song is a thing of beauty to the listening ear.
It lets us know when morning is approaching, like nature’s alarm clock. It can also be a peaceful sound we hear while out enjoying a walk or run in nature.
But why do birds sing?
If you listen carefully, you’ll discover it’s not just about sounding pretty, it’s also an important part of their survival strategy.
Birds sing mainly to mark territory and attract mates. It’s a way of maintaining their space and family so other birds don’t steal their livelihood away.
On the surface, the reasons why birds sing are fairly simple & plain to see. But there’s also a lot more subtlety that can be further explored and investigated with careful observation.
For example: Sometimes different species of birds will reach their peak of singing at dramatically different times during their mating process.
Some species might sing more vibrantly at specific times of day or night, and these differences all have subtly different messages to other birds in the area.
Bird song can be a huge area of study when you really start digging into the details, so let’s explore some of the core ideas together.
1. Singing For Territory
Birds sing for territory as a way to let other birds know when an area is claimed.
Typically these songs are directed towards other members of the same species because that’s who they’re in direct competition with for food & nesting sites.
This is why birds of two different species can often live close together quite peacefully, but keep their distance from other members of their own species.
Birds choose their territory based on survival needs such as:
- Nesting sites
Here’s a few things to keep in mind about bird territories as they relate to song:
Territory size depends on the individual bird species.
Some birds need a lot of space and want little competition for food. Other birds are more open to living in a community with others and sharing certain parts of their territory.
These species dynamics all therefore affect the intensity of song carried out by individual songbirds.
Quality of the land will also change how much area each bird needs.
If the land is abundant with resources, birds will need less space. But they will need more if the land is bare with food scarce.
An ideal landscape with plenty of resources will therefore support a higher population of a particular species. This is one of the reasons why some environments seem to have so much more song than others.
Good territory and the resulting song can help to attract mates.
If a bird has secured a good area for mating and nesting, it will be easier for them to attract a mate.
Some birds like the American Robin will perch on a high visible post to sing, to make sure their song gets the maximum range.
Here’s an American Robin song:
Other birds like sparrows adopt a different strategy by slowly circling around their territory singing from different locations.
Here’s a Song Sparrow song:
There are also communal birds that don’t seem to care as much about territory at all.
Birds such as Swifts, Swallows or waterfowl, who travel as a large flock, sometimes don’t maintain very precise or large territories.
They care more about the area immediately surrounding their nesting ground but share the rest of the area with the flock.
2. Singing To Find Mates
Birds have an organ called the syrinx, which has two bronchial tubes allowing most birds to sing with two pitches at once.
They have independent control of both tubes, allowing them to make a wide variety of song pitches and power. Many Human vocalists would be jealous of this power and skill.
Typically, most singing birds are male. They use a variety of notes and sounds to demonstrate skill & entice females.
However, some female birds like those in the tropics actually sing quite well, and there can be duetting songs between birds.
Here’s an example of a Cardinal song. This is one northern species that has both male & female songs.
Male Cardinals sing for their mates by using sweeping notes, where they can jump from wide ranges of notes seamlessly.
It is a way for the male to show off to the females, and catch their attention with their singing skills.
Their double voiceboxes allow for a variety of notes that even surpass what a keyboard can make. All this complexity helps to deter other male cardinals from coming onto their territory.
Birds are not born knowing how to sing for mates. Instead, they have to listen and learn from other adult songbirds.
Then they practice those songs until they perfect the notes. Other birds, like catbirds or mockingbirds, learn to mimic other species or even car alarms.
This is why bird songs sometimes become more complex and difficult to replicate as a bird gets older.
It has been theorized that a more complex song is considered more desirable by females because it demonstrates the birds ability to survive longer than the others.
This also means you can sometimes guess which bird is older or more dominant by comparing their songs and listening for which one seems more complex.
3. Singing During The Mating Process
Birds sing during many different parts of the mating process…
Some primarily sing to attract mates and then don’t sing as much after that. Others sing most strongly during the actual nesting period even after courtship is finished.
It all just depends on the individual bird species and can often provide good clues to help you identify the nesting stage.
I’ve notice Song Sparrows for example will sing most intensively during the early spring courtship.
Then they get more quiet while nesting is happening, and finally resume singing in stronger force again when summer comes back around, possibly as they get ready to start a second family.
Other birds, like the Robin, tend to sing most intently right as the eggs are about to hatch. This is a great way to tell when Robin eggs are getting close to hatching.
Birdsong does seems to play a key role in how the females choose their mates.
During the courtship period, female birds can listen to a male bird’s song, and know if they will be a good genetic match or not.
Most females are attracted to complex-sounding songs. So, the more interesting the song is, the more likely they will choose that bird as their mate.
The one thing that remains true for all birds is their singing is mainly important during the mating and nesting process.
Once the mating season is over, you’ll notice much less song in the air.
Birds simply have much less reason to sing since they no longer need to find mates and maintain such tight territories, although some species do continue singing less intently all through winter.
4. Singing During Different Times of The Day
It’s also interesting to note the different ways birds sing during all times of the day and night.
Sometimes the way a bird sings at dawn will be quite different from how it sounds in the afternoon or evening.
These dynamics can give interesting insight about what’s happening in the mind of local birds.
One theory about why birds sing so much at dawn is because this is often when their voices carry the farthest.
There tends to be less observable wind & noise pollution at this time of day to interfere with the sound, so it makes sense to invest extra energy in singing at this time of day.
Dawn singing could also be a way for birds to listen for their neighbours and let other birds know they’re healthy and survived the night.
If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that bird song at dawn frequently sounds much more intense & vibrant than other times of day.
Though the dawn chorus tends to be our most intense period of song, many birds will continue to sing throughout the day, especially during times of nesting & courtship.
This is especially true in places that don’t get excessively hot during the afternoons.
Bird song is still made for the same reasons at this time of day, but you’ll often notice it sounds a bit more laid back or lazy.
Birds sing during this time to keep rival birds away from their territory, as well as their food sources.
There are also quite a few nocturnal birds, who mainly sing at night.
The reason for this difference is primarily the result of their nocturnal lifestyle. Birds simply focus on singing when they’re active and have a need to either maintain territories or attract a mate.
Mockingbirds, hooting owls, Whip-Poor-Wills and Nightingales are just a few examples of these nocturnal birds that sing at night.
I absolutely love the sound of the Whip-Poor-Will’s song.
5. Singing For Help
While bird song does not specifically act as a warning of danger, it can be used as an indicator of relative safety.
In general, birds do not sing when there are predators around, so when you hear birds singing, it’s often a good sign that the area immediately surrounding a bird is safe from predators like cats, weasels, hawks & owls.
This also means that if you suddenly notice a dramatic decrease of bird song, this could be telling you that danger is moving in.
These generalized shifts in song volume can also happen in conjunction with extreme weather or loud noises like airplanes.
If you want to learn about how birds use song to help you identify bird alarms or warning calls, it’s important to also study the alarm calls of songbirds, which is something completely different from their song.
6. Singing For the Fun of It
The reality and great mystery of bird song is there’s a lot we still don’t know about why birds sing.
Therefore, we have to of course include the possibility that some birds may also sometimes sing just for the pleasure of it.
It is well researched that singing is a very healthy activity for humans. It helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which promotes healthy & emotional release… So why not birds too!
Maybe they have fun exploring their voices and making a variety of sounds with their double voiceboxes.
Mimic birds are seen to almost play games by mimicking sounds in their environment.
They can even trick other species, like frogs, that they are frogs as well.
Birds closer to urban areas can also trick us into thinking someone is honking their horn at us, or an emergency vehicle is coming.
Research hasn’t proven what range of emotion birds feel, but it could be hypothesized that birds enjoy the sound of their songs.
Even when there aren’t any territorial or mating concerns, some birds may sing with others, seemingly for the pleasure of it.
There could be a real survival benefit to birds simply enjoying the production of their songs and experimenting with how they produce each note.
Birds can borrow songs from other birds. Some species will gradually add songs and sound to their repertoire.
Maybe they’re trying to take sounds from other birds during their migration and bring it back to impress the ladies.
Whether it’s because the sound is foreign, or they just like the sound of it. These new sounds can make their song more complex and thus enticing more mates.
Birds sing for a variety of reasons, but mostly it all comes down to territorial or mating reasons.
Different songs can hold various messages for other birds, such as potential mates or rivals. These meanings can also change depending on the time of day, and the species of bird.
Simply knowing these songs have deeper meaning makes it possible to appreciate the bird’s song more.
The one thing that’s certain is birds are definitely communicating with one another.
I hope this inspires you to listen more closely to the variety of bird songs that resound throughout your days and nights.