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Why do the birds sing?

May 5, 2024
The Dawn Chorus heralds the start of a new day and is a time for songbirds to embrace their inner performer and quite simply show off!

At times, it may be hard to love the sounds outside your window when you are awakened at 4am, but the cacophony of chirps and tweets melded together into a complex song, spell out the sitcom of life in the passerine world. It really is an incredible achievement for such small creatures.

As the days grow warmer and longer, our feathered friends grow noisier, singing their hearts out as the soundtrack to the natural world. But did you know that their song can have a number of purposes including recognition, attracting a mate or defending a breeding territory.

Songbirds will start singing at different times, with the best time to listen around half an hour before and after sunrise.  The song thrush is often first, followed by blackbirds, wrens and robins, who will start to sing well before the sun rises.  At this time of day, sound travels much farther than when there is more background noise and there is often less wind. This enables the birds to hit the mark with their quest for territory or attracting a mate.  It’s also too early to gather food in the dim light, so a perfect use of time!

If you stop and listen, you'll start to notice that each species has at least one signature song but some having a repertoire of five tunes or more. Incredibly the nightingale has a repertoire of more than 200 melodies.  The songs have to be learned and it is a vital lesson, as those which sing the wrong tune, may have less success finding a mate. Similar to how humans make their first ventures into speech, young birds listen to their elders and test out short bursts of song. If it doesn’t sound quite right, they will adapt and try again. For some species it is critical to learn the song at only a few months old but for others, new songs are learned throughout their life.

 How do birds sing?

The unique nature of birdsong is due to an organ called the syrinx buried deep in the chest cavity, and sited just above where the larynx splits into the two windpipes which connect each lung. The syrinx, was named in 1872 after a Greek nymph who was transformed into panpipes, as it has a similar structure: Uniquely, the syrinx enables two unrelated pitches to be created at once, which means those beautiful complex songs are possible.  

In these spring and early summer months, take time to listen to your local vocalists and have a try at working out who is hogging the airwaves. Head over to our A-Z of songbirds for recordings of birdsong which will help you know the performer of the tunes you are hearing.

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