Do Birds Really Sing?

By | August 22, 2012

To our ears, the songs of many birds are melodic and joyful sounding. They lift our hearts—we write poetry about the haunting call of the loon and the flute-like trill of the thrush. But what is birdsong to the birds?  Do they see themselves as the creators of beautiful melodies, or—as many ornithologists and birders will tell you—are they only carrying out the onerous task of warning other males of their kind that any territorial infringement will be taken as a call to battle?

These options strike me as mainly anthropomorphizing—projecting onto the birds what our motivations would be in similar circumstances. When I attune to the birds’ reality, I find that our reasonings touch on their reality, but for the most part they blind us to what the birds are actually up to. Keeping pigeons and living in the wilds for most of my life, I’ve been able to develop close relationships with birds. In addition, I’ve worked on avian research projects at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’ve learned that there is only one way to truly understand what a bird is doing and why, and that is to become the bird. Research and study can be helpful, yet to get beyond our projections and romantic notions, nothing beats becoming bird brains. Once we do so, we can understand why birds would get a chuckle out of our calling their vocalizations, songs.

I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned through a process I call becoming, where I let go of my identity and adopt another’s.  Rather than merely observing a bird, I’m able to I fly up to the treetop with—or rather as—him and feel the wind swaying the branch under me.  I go where he goes, see what he sees, and eat what he eats. I feel what he feels—his motivations and reactions become mine.

Becoming is a doorway that I can I step through to enter bird consciousness, and then step back again to regain my human perspective and reflect on what I’ve gained.  And what is that? The first thing is a respect that borders on reverence.  A male bird vocalization can be a combination of ID card, traffic light, advertisement, word of comfort, matchmaker, referee, and hormonal regulator.  As if that were not enough, there is the concurrent intricate pantomime played out by perch location, body language, and even the time of day.  All of that in a single song, some of which are comprised of just a few notes.

Let’s take a look at some of the roles played by a typical male songbird’s call during the breeding season. Yes, the call (usually) gives notice to other males, but not so much for warning as it is to help the singer be a functioning organ within the greater organism comprised of all the members of his species in the area.  They need each other—they find strength in numbers and function in symbiotic relationship with each other.  From our perspective, they may appear to be defining and defending their territories; however, from their view they are helping each other  keep focused on their respective nests.  Rather than being competitive, they’re working together to provide a mutual support network.

One reason they all sing at the same time is that the more voices there are, the less a predator is able to focus on one.  They’re using the same technique as herding, flocking, and schooling animals. Predators generally have a much more difficult time isolating and capturing an animal from a grouping than catching an isolated animal.

I’ve observed that some bird species need a certain population density in order to nest successfully.  When their population falls below the critical number in a particular region, they either abandon it or die out. Yet with other species, isolated pairs can and do nest successfully. If you’ve ever found a solo male calling during nesting season, with no other males in sight or earshot, he may be of one of those species that can nest alone. This raises the question: if he is the only male in the area, why does he bother singing? Doesn’t it contradict what I stated above about symbiotic relationship being the reason for male vocalizations?

Though relationship with others of his kind is an important reason to call, it is far from the only one.  The males of many species will vocalize whether alone or packed together like sardines.  The most immediate I’ve found for doing so is to give comfort to the female on the nest.  Many species choose their nesting niches for the cover they provide, which contributes to nesting success, however at the cost of visual range. When not nesting or needing shelter, most birds choose perches that give them the visibility to cite oncoming predators and the time to escape.  Hearing her mate taking care of things out there allows her to relax into the job of brooding eggs and feeding young.  It is a tremendously draining task—so much so that if something happened to her mate, she might not be able continue alone.  Most females have no choice but to abandon their nests.

I hear some people lamenting the position of the poor female, who they see as having to do nearly all the work of rearing the young.  If only these people could come to see how much—how vitally much—is being done by that pretty little song.  And what risk he takes to stand out in the open and sing it.

I’ve even found an altruistic side to a male’s urge to vocalize: it helps unmated males find unclaimed territories.  When all the pared males call simultaneously, single males can listen for the sound vacuums, which point to open territories that might be suitable for nesting. At the same time, the chorus of calls can steer unmated females away from established pairs and toward areas where they are more likely to find eligible males.


What I have shared is not to give the impression that all is neighborliness and marital bliss in the bird burbs.  Even though parings and territories are solidly established in an area, the observant person can still find scrapping males and a fair amount of hanky-panky going on.  Genetic testing has shown that with some species, up to 60% of the offspring can be sired by males other than the female’s mate.  A bird’s song may not be the equivalent of ours, but when it comes to mating behavior, some birds fit our model quite well.

2 Comments on August 31, 2017 at 7:03 pm.

You could definitely see your skills in the paintings you write. The world hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. All the time go after your heart. “He never is alone that is accompanied with noble thoughts.” by Fletcher.

Reply on August 27, 2012 at 3:31 am.

Thanks Tamarack Song for sharing your Experiences and Findings on Bird Language.
I live in Europe but my Observations find similar Stories.
An interesting Point you mentioned is, that some Birds do not act in the big Stream of Bird Life. They do not alarm as quick as Others do.
Some Birds do not act with the high Level of Awareness that Others.

I belief that Behavior of Birds can be compared with Behavior of Humans.
Each Bird has its own Personality like each Human has.


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