Even those with little real interest in birds can appreciate the delicate tones and melodious tunes of birdsong, but it is more than just music to birds. Understanding why birds sing can help you learn about the different cycles of a bird's life and how to best listen to birds at different times of the year.
What is Birdsong?
A bird's song is only one type of sound that a bird makes, but it is the most recognisable. Birds have very complex vocalisations, often with more than one tone produced simultaneously. Songs may last 2-10 seconds or more, and are often repeated in long sequences. A song is generally more musical than their calls. In most bird species, only male birds sing, and often they will do this from high, exposed perches in order to attract attention to their song and for the song to be broadcast further.
Birds aren't hatched with the ability to sing. Young birds first practice begging calls and other attention-getting tones in the nest, but gradually learn to sing by listening to the songs of their parents. Because of this education, birds in different geographic areas will learn slightly different songs, so you can have a 'Geordie' chaffinch. In different environments, birds even learn to mimic other bird species or non-bird sounds, this is a particular skill of Starlings.
Singing is not without its dangers. It takes great energy and many calories to produce loud, clear tones, and the sounds can easily attract predators and make the singer more vulnerable.
The benefits that birds get from singing including territory, a healthy mate, and a place to raise their young, are well worth the risk. Birdwatchers also benefit, not just from being able to listen to identify species by their song, but simply enjoying the song that greets them when in their gardens or the countryside.
Why do Birds Sing?
Birds use songs for a variety of purposes depending on the season and each individual bird's needs. The most common reasons for birds to sing include:
- Claiming and maintaining territory. This is usually the most powerful song of a bird's repertoire, and tells other individuals of the same species that an active and healthy male is in control of that particular patch. In your garden you'll notice this most clearly with Robins and Chaffinches.
- Attracting a mate. As well as letting other male birds know that a territory exists, a bird's song is also the invitation for a female to join this dominant and powerful male for breeding. The better and stronger his song then the more likely he is to make a good partner. Older birds can develop more variations to their song which can give them the edge over singing novices. A good strong song should translate into good healthy chicks.
- Other communication. Different calls and short songs can be used in a variety of ways. Some calls are to attract mates to a newly found food source (perhaps a recently filled birdfeeder), others help to keep flocks in contact with each other and some birds call from the nest when they want to swap incubation duty.
Some ornithologists have theorised that birds may also sing simply for the pleasure of it, but this has not been proven and the idea of bird emotions is still not understood well and can be controversial. It is possible that birds learn to enjoy their own songs and singing with other responsive birds nearby.
Researchers have suggested that learned songs allow the development of more complex songs through cultural interaction. This allows birds of the same species to have an individual, as opposed to regional dialect that help birds to identify their own family and to adapt their songs to different acoustic environments. Colony nesting birds such as herons will have very slightly different calls so that they can communicate with their own mates and chicks.
When Do Birds Sing?
While some bird species sing year-round, most songs are sung from late winter to early summer. This is exactly the time when birds mate and therefore need to claim territories attract mates and strengthen pair bonds, and songs are an important part of the process. The birds that do sing year-round are less likely to be migratory and therefore still defend their territory and often remain with the same mate throughout the year, increasing their need for year-round songs.
Without doubt the best time to hear the best birdsong is to get out pre-dawn from Aril to June. Mixed woodlands are probably the best place to go to hear the stunning sound which will diminish dramatically soon after sunrise. In the evenings at dusk is another good time as many birds will sing prior to roosting.
Watch, Listen and Enjoy
If you are patient you can get to know the songs of your garden birds. Listen out for the song then watch to see who's making it. You'll be surprised just how quickly you can recognise the birds in your garden without even seeing them!