The study of bird vocalizations/bird songs is much like the work our linguists have carried out on the never-ending multifaceted breadth of human language. On the face of it, however, bird vocalization looks at least to be a little less mind-boggling, although there’s nothing to say their sounds don’t have a similar language family tree to ours.
ut as birds have a rather irritating habit of never writing anything down (some lame excuse about having wings) it’s simply not possible to track the origins and tangents over the millennia. But research in this field does have a long history, with informal observations and documentation dating back to ancient times; some would argue beginning with Aristotle who wrote about bird songs in his work Historia Animalium, in 4th century BC, one of the first major textbooks produced on the biology of animals.
More recent scientific studies began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most notably by researchers like Ludwig Koch who made the first known recording of a bird when he was 8 years old in 1889. Bird sounds were eventually cataloged and classified, now referred to as either bird songs or calls. As recording equipment technology advanced in the mid-20th century, more detailed studies took place, with Peter Marler and Donald Kroodsma making substantial contributions to our understanding of bird song learning, development, and communication.
In the 1950s the invention of ultrasound imaging for human medical was soon utilized in veterinary medicine, and the sound pictures or sonograms produced proved to be remarkably useful for “seeing” bird song; these images are what we can all now readily access when we use bird song ID apps such as Merlin and BirdNet. It can be fascinating to watch the sharp rise and fall of the notes and lingering waves of the trills as birds make noise all around us.
Symphony of the skies
In the tranquil hours of early morning, a symphony unfolds amidst the trees, and while we may romanticize the sound, the melodious chirps and whistles that resonate through the air actually serve a variety of purposes, from attracting mates to defending territories and communicating danger. Similarly, the sounds made by other birds such as raptors, waterfowl, and game birds, while not typically considered songs in the same way as those of songbirds, are nonetheless serving the same functions.
A bird’s call is defined as a short and simple vocalization; alarm calls signal flight or danger, and contact calls are most often but not exclusively made by social or gregarious species, such as Canada geese as they prepare for lift-off, or European bee-eaters as they forage mid-flight.
Calls can be heard at any time throughout the year, but bird songs tend to be more of a long and complex vocalization produced during breeding seasons. Songs can consist of several phrases, made up of single notes. Each bird will have its own repertoire, or different versions of that species’ song, and there is huge variation between species.
Across the known species of songbirds, it is thought that around 20% have a repertoire consisting of more than five songs, with notable exceptions who like to show off a bit more, such as the fabled Old World Common nightingales, whose males can have up to 250 different bird song types, Brown thrashers of the Americas with over 1,000 song types, and we must mention the Superb lyrebirds, native to Australia, who are remarkable mimics, having one of the most extensive repertoires in the world incorporating a wide range of sounds, including the imitations of other birds and man-made noises.
The European starling is another exceptional mimic who learns and adds new songs to their repertoire throughout their lives, usually on a seasonal basis, confounding previously held beliefs by linguists and researchers alike. Bohemian Waxwings are one species of songbird that doesn’t exactly hold up the name banner high — they have no true song; their call, a high-pitched, rapid, and vibrato trill that sounds like a toy laser gun, is given when interacting with each other while perched or in flight.
One of the most well-known types of vocalization is the mating call. Male birds sing complex and elaborate songs to attract females to display their reproductive fitness. Incorporated into a courtship display, the male is essentially strutting his stuff and shouting about how amazing his genetic quality, strength, and overall health is. The one with the best song will triumph, and down the pecking order we go.
Golden-winged warblers are small migratory songbirds who breed in southeastern and south-central Canada and northeastern to north-central United States, and the males sing a series of melodious and high-pitched notes in a rapid and dazzling pattern. Western Meadowlarks across the other side of the United States are known for perching atop fence posts or shrubs to sing their captivating flutelike songs.
Alarm calls serve as a crucial communication tool among birds, warning members of the same species of potential threats and predators. These vocalizations are often sharp, abrupt, and easily distinguishable from other types of bird songs and calls. One of the most common sounds of summer is the frantic high-pitched, one-note alarm call of barn swallows as they dive-bomb passers-by of any kind, protecting the young in their wall-mounted nests.
The high-pitched "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" alarm call of the black-capped chickadee is widely recognized in the US birding community. When a common enemy appears, some species work together, or at least react to alarm signals from each other, such as superb fairy wrens and white-browed scrub wrens as a hawk circles above. Hawks have their own predators, of course, and will often emit a single high-pitched scream, such as that of the Gray hawk.
Get off my land
Territorial bird songs and calls are used by male birds to at first establish and then defend their territories. These vocalizations possess distinctive patterns, repeated phrases, and are often sung from prominent perches or airborne heights to maximize their audibility. The lilting song of the skylark, or the jubilant trill of the northern cardinal are two examples, or things can get more physical such as competing European robins who will sing at each other from increasingly higher and higher perches to show off their red breasts, before launching into vicious and often fatal attacks.
Music to your ears
Identifying bird songs can allow us to better understand those birds that are out there, and for many birders, hearing their calls and songs are the only clues we have that they are indeed nearby. Learning to differentiate both the type of vocalization and who it might belong to will increase your awareness of birds immensely. Here are some tips to help:
1. Listen attentively:
Take the time to listen carefully to the melodies and patterns of bird songs. Pay attention to the rhythm, pitch, and distinctive phrases that may recur throughout the song.
2. Observe the context:
Consider the time of day, season, and habitat in which you hear the song. Different bird species have preferences for breeding grounds and habitats, which can narrow down the possibilities.
3. Utilize field guides and recordings:
Field guides provide valuable information about different bird species and their vocalizations. Recordings, available online or in apps, can be incredibly useful for comparing and learning specific bird songs.
4. Join birding groups or outings:
Spending time with experienced birders can enhance your learning experience. These enthusiasts often have extensive knowledge of local bird songs and can offer valuable guidance and insights.
5. Practice and patience:
Identifying bird songs takes patience. The more you expose yourself to different songs, the better you become at distinguishing them. Don't be discouraged by initial challenges; it's all part of the learning process.
Bird vocalizations reveal a whole new world of communication and by delving into their captivating sounds, we forge a deeper connection with nature, helping us understand their needs and lives.