A bird’s eye view: Nature’s concert
Have you ever wondered why birds sing? I have. And the answer isn’t only “Because they can.” There are other reasons why birds sing. Let’s do some exploring together about bird song.
Ornithologists believe birds sing to declare their territories. Most animals have an area or territory they call their own. Birds are no different. It takes a lot of energy to patrol one’s territory and, in the case of birds, it would mean they would have to fly to wherever their invisible boundaries are. Flying takes more energy than singing. Hence, bird song tells other birds, especially rival males, “This is my property and I own it — stay away.”
Another reason birds sing is to impress a potential mate. Songs may reflect a male’s overall health thus increasing his chances of gaining a mate. Like humans, singing in birds is a chance to show off. And in some members of the Mimidae family, like Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird and Northern Mockingbird, the larger the repertoire of songs the chances of attracting a quality mate and better territory are enhanced.
Georgia is the only state in the U.S. to claim the Brown Thrasher as it’s state bird. A Brown Thrasher that was studied by Don Kroodsma of the Rockefeller University Field Research Center in Millbrook, N.Y., had a repertoire of 2,400 different and distinct songs! Pretty good for a songbird that weighs just over 2 ounces and has a brain the size of a pea.
Songbirds, a species from the oscine (ah-SEEN) group of passerine (PASS-er-een) birds, (including sparrows, thrushes, and warblers) have a specialized voice box called a syrinx that can produce complex sounds. Songbirds must learn their songs rather than developing them instinctively. The learning process begins while they are still in the nest as they listen to adults of their species sing.
The songbird syrinx makes vocal gymnastics possible — for example the Northern Cardinal is able to sweep through more notes than are on a piano keyboard in just a 10th of a second. Because each branch of the songbird syrinx is individually controlled, the cardinal can start its sweeping notes with one side of the syrinx and seamlessly switch to the other side without stopping for a breath, making them the envy of human vocalists everywhere. And I thought Roy Orbison was a great vocalist!
The syrinx organ in songbirds is located where the trachea splits into two bronchial tubes. In songbirds, each side of the syrinx is independently controlled, allowing birds to produce two unrelated pitches at once. Some birds even have the ability to sing rising and falling notes simultaneously, like the Wood Thrush in its final trill.
Not to be confused with songs, birds also give calls. Bird calls are more simple in origin and have different meanings than song. Calls tend to be shorter, less rhythmic sounds used to communicate a nearby threat or an individual’s location. I cannot tell you how many times birds have alerted me to a snake or a cat in my yard.
Because I actively listen to birds, I realized something wasn’t right one day a few years ago when I heard Purple Martins in my next-door neighbor’s yard frantically calling. Their call wasn’t their usual bubbly, rolling, bring-a-smile-to-your-face, happy song they sing; it was more urgent, constant and harsh like something was terribly wrong. I walked to my neighbor’s martin housing to find a huge Black Rat Snake hanging all over the support pole and gourds. The birds alerted me to the presence of a predator because I listened.
To me there is no better music to my auditory senses than the early morning dawn chorus. The dawn chorus peaks during nesting season and is performed in North America by male songbirds maintaining their territories. In Central and South America some females sing also. At times it can be almost deafening yet, oh so sweet to the ear. And the best part is that nature’s concert is free.
When you stop to think about it dawn is perpetual. As Earth revolves there is morning somewhere all the time. Which means there are birds singing a dawn song 24 hours a day, 7 days a week somewhere on Planet Earth.
In October 2015, my pastor, Bryan Myers, preached a series on the Lord’s Prayer. In one of his sermons he mentioned about all creation rejoicing before the Lord. Which got me to thinking and doing some research.
Psalm 96:1 says, “Oh, sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord all the earth.” And Psalm 98:4 proclaims, “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.” And finally, Psalm 150:6 tells us, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” Well, animals have breath and birds are animals. Could it be that as the Earth is spinning on its axis that there is a continual praise going out to the Lord from everything that has breath (like the birds)? Do sparrows of the fields praise their Creator through bird song? Is it possible that there is yet another reason birds sing that ornithologists have yet to acknowledge?
One of my favorite quotes was from a man by the name of Jacob Post Giraud, 1811-1870. He said, “Those who pass through life without stopping to admire the beauty, organization, melody or habits of birds rob themselves of a very great share of the pleasures of existence.”
I think Mr. Giraud was spot on. Take time to really listen this spring to nature’s concert. It’s a great way to start your day.
Some information in this article is reprinted with permission from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Learn more at www.allaboutbirds.org
Phil Hardy, a bird watcher and bird photographer, lives in Americus.