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 Bird Sounds - Songs and CallsSong Bird

 

No matter where we live, the songs of birds brighten up our days.  This is nature’s orchestra at its best.  The early morning chirps of a robin or chickadee delight us, and the sound of a honking flock of migrating geese inspire us.  There is an incredible diversity.  Some birds have their songs encoded at birth, while others learn their songs, either from their father, or from birds around them.  Some of those that learn their songs only learn when they are young, and others keep learning their entire life.  Some species may sing the same song but have different dialects from one area to another.  Some birds such as the Brown thrasher, may have hundreds or thousands of different songs, while others such as the Common Yellowthroat, may have as little as one.

While bird watching is enjoyable, learning the songs and calls of birds adds an exciting dimension to it.  Being able to identify unseen birds from a distance, when they are hidden in the bush or a wooded habitat, by listening to their songs and calls is very satisfying.  Many people do what is called spishing, where they make a (spis) sound with their lips.  Another technique is kissing the back of your hand to make a squeaking sound.  Some songbirds such as chickadees and warblers will come to check out the sound.  

A Bit of HistoryBird songs and calls

The first record of bird song recording was by Ludwig Koch in 1889. At the time Ludwig was eight years old.  He recorded the Indian Shama, a member of the Thrush family.  Many years later after Dr. Koch moved to Britain from Germany he worked with E.M Nicholson. E.M Nicholson became the director of the Nature Conservancy creating the book “Songs of Wild Birds.

Dr. Koch’s sound recordings became the base for the BBC’s natural history library.  As you can imagine the recording equipment at that time was very cumbersome.

Communication of Bird Songs and Calls

Songs and calls play a very important role in the live of birds.  With all the ways birds communicate sound is probably the most important.  Because birds do not have a strong sense of smell they rely on vision and sound.  Sound is ideal for low light or over long distances.

Basic Difference between Songs and Calls

Songs

Songs are more musical, and complex then calls.  Songs are usually only produced by the male. Males often learn these songs from their dads or by listening to nearby males. Because they learn these musical phrases regional dialects are often developed. A male’s song may get richer, and more varied as he gets more experience with age. This gives him a bit of an edge over younger birds. When the female chooses a mate she will evaluate his health and maturity by this song.  With most birds the song can be associated with breeding. The male is singing to find or communicate with his mate and to claim and protect his territory by warning other males to stay away.  Social bonding of pairs may also be aided with songs.

The majority of the singing is in early morning.  The birds will be quiet during the middle of the day, and start up again in late afternoon, although there are some species that will sing all day long.

Song birds such as warblers may have different songs for attracting mates than they do for protecting their territory. Some birds such as Meadow larks will do a duet where each partner contributes phrases to the song.  A male Red-winged blackbirds will sing while the female chatters back at him.  

Male songbirds may do what is known as countersinging during territorial disputes.  In this contest each bird will match the other bird's song types.  One bird famous for this is the Marsh wren.

Some songbirds are known for imitating the sounds of other birds and animals.  Mockingbirds will even imitate machinery.  European starlings, catbirds, and thrashers are imitators.  Blue Jays will imitate the call of a hawk.  There are two types of songs.  The loud primary song we usually hear a male singing, and soft songs that are called whisper song.

Calls

Calls are usually not as musical as songs.  They are usually only a few short notes, and may be heard throughout the year.  Birds use calls to communicate many things to each other, and between members of a flock or family. Contact calls may be used to give others information such as a birds location. There are calls for aggression, warning, identification, flocking, hunger, to announce a food source, and many others.  Many species will have calls that specify a certain type of predator in the area.  Some calls are understood by more than one species.  A recent fascinating study by scientists at the Universities of Washington, and Montana found that nuthatches understand chickadee calls.  When chickadees warn that predatory bird is near, the nuthatches will band together with them to surround the predator in an attempt to drive it away.  Young birds give begging calls to get their parents to feed them.

Although calls are used for communication, that communication is in the present.  Here is an example of what I mean.  You may tell a friend you left your keys at his house yesterday.  Birds have not developed the mental capacity for this, and can only communicate something happening right now such as a warning call.

Learning to Recognize Bird Sounds

Many people buy tapes or CDs of bird sounds, both for enjoyment and, to learn the different songs.  

 Here is another good selection of bird songs on CDs.

You can also search sounds from web sites such as FindSounds.com.  Many of these can be downloaded for your own use.  Some people like to record sounds themselves.  Bird sound recording equipment can be found on the Internet.

The more ways you have to identify a bird the more you will enjoy, and the more success you will have at bird watching.

Their colorful plumage makes most birds easy to identify if you can get a good look at them.  If the birds are in the brush, a long distance away, or in poor light it is more difficult.  Because of the effects of shadows, lighting, and changes in plumage, visual identification is often not as reliable as identification from songs and calls.  Many bird watchers learn to identify bird shapes and silhouettes as well as sounds.

The best place to start learning birdcalls is in your back yard.  If you walk through a wooded area there may be such a stream of different calls it is hard to pick one out.  By observing the birds in your back yard, and listening to their calls, you can learn to pick them out in a forest or wooded area.  This combined with their shapes can make your birding experience more fun and rewarding.

In addition to listening to them in your back yard there are many tapes of birdcalls you can buy.    You can also find sounds online for almost any bird. Check the sound search engine link below.

Sound Production

Birds have a sound-producing organ called the syrnx.  The syrnix is near the bottom of their windpipe, where it divides into the main bronchial tubes that lead to the lungs.  The membranes are like the skin of a drum, and vibrate as air is pushed out through them.  Pairs of muscles control the tension on the membranes to change the sound characteristics.  The number and complexity of these muscles vary with different species, and if fact between male and female.  The syrnix is divided into two compartments, one for each lung.  These can be controlled separately, and sounds from each can be combined.  This is why birds such as starlings, and mockingbirds can make such varied sounds, and are such good imitators.  

Birds Hearing is also Important.
Their hearing is much the same as ours.  One big advantage is that they have developed sense of time resolution, which is about 10 times better than ours.  What does this mean? Several separate notes in sequence may sound to us like one long note.  Because of their time resolution ability they hear the note separated into the smaller segments.  This allows more information to be communicated.  One way to visualize this is to compare it to a piece of movie film.  When run through a projector we can’t see the separation. Scientists today use sound spectrographs to study these.

Below is both the sound and visual image of a simple robin chirp.  It sounds to us like two notes.  In the image you can see the separation that birds can hear.
Hear Robin Chirp
  If your browser will not let you use this sound link, the Robin Chirp is the last on in the drop down list below.

Other sounds

There of course sounds other than songs or calls.  Here are a few:

Drumming of a Woodpecker
Woodpeckers have specialized bills, and neck muscles for hammering on tree trunks.  In addition to drilling holes they use this to send sound signals.  Woodpeckers and grouse both use drumming to claim a territory, and attract a mate, just like songbirds use their song.  Grouse beat their wings to make the sound.  


Note on some browsers you will not be able to see or use the drop down sound list.  If you can't use it try the sound links below.

Woodpecker drumming  Click for Sound
Ruffed Grouse drumming  Click for Sound
Wings of a Hummingbird  Click for Sound
Pigeon Wings  Click for Sound
Snipe Dive  Click for Sound

The Common snipe will climb high in sky then dive down at a slant with its tail feathers spread. The air rushing through will cause the outer feathers to vibrate creating a drumming sound.  It has been described as a siren or bleating sound.  Owls and herons snap their bills to show aggression or if alarmed.

Most of the pages about specific birds on the All-Birds website have samples of the particular birds song or call. Click here for favorite birds and their sounds.

Bird song and call

Learn about recording bird songs and calls, and the equipment needed.

 
           bird songs & calls 
Songs & Calls CDs

robin