How does a bird learn its song? Why does it sing?

Bird Songs
What is a bird "saying" when it sings?

Peggy listens in on some bird talk.
Segment length: 6:45


You're walking in a park when suddenly a bird bursts into song. At a spot where a pile of leaves are flying, you see it-a large, robinlike bird with orange flanks and a white belly. It's a rufus-sided towhee. It's singing a song that sounds like "drink-your-tea-ee-ee-ee-ee." The bird spots you and changes its tune to "dreet, dreet, tow-hee, chee-wink."

Is the bird talking to you? What is it saying? Why does a towhee sing this song instead of a robin's song? Why do songbirds sing at all?

For the answers, you need to look at both heredity and experience. The songs a bird sings are usually distinctive to its species. Scientists believe a bird is born with a "neurological model" of what its song should sound like. The baby bird learns that song by matching the sounds it hears from its father and male neighbors. Scientists call this theory the auditory template hypothesis.

In this theory, song learning begins at about ten days after hatching and continues for about 40 days. Baby birds then practice their songs through the fall and winter. By spring, birds have developed a "crystallized" song.

To communicate, birds combine songs and other vocalizations with certain behaviors and outward appearances. Males tend to sing more than females, and they sing more in the spring. Songs help proclaim territory, attract mates, and maintain a pair bond.

Some birds like gulls and parrots have no songs. Instead they use complex calls to defend territory and attract mates. Oilbirds and cave swiflets use vocalizations to maneuver in the dark, a process called echolocation. The ruffed grouse and mourning dove make sounds with their wings and woodpeckers with their beaks.

Most songbirds have several songs and calls. Birds in the Mimid family (the mockingbird, catbird, and brown thrasher) have very large repertoires. Scientists believe that repertoires increase with age and may indicate to females the health and experience of the male.

A songbird uses its syrinx, a vocal organ in its throat, to create a song. A bird's songs can vary in pitch, tone length, number of notes, and special sounds. The two halves of the syrinx can produce songs simultaneously so a bird may sing harmonies with itself, resulting in extremely rich and complex melodies. No human voice can equal this feat.


1. What different kinds of sounds do humans make? Why do humans sing and make music?
2. Why could the same word or gesture mean something different in different countries?

Key Words

dialect variation of a bird song that birds from a particular region sing
harmonics tone or sound wave found in a series of notes in harmony
heredity transmission of characteristics from parents to offspring, including genes and the abilities associated with them
ornithology branch of zoology that deals with the study of birds
songbird bird capable of producing complex vocalizations that resemble a melodious song
species category of classification that ranks organisms very similar to one another and capable of interbreeding
syrinx bird's vocal organ, made of thin muscles that vibrate during song


  1. Crabb, C. (1991, Nov 25) Nature's symphonic mystery. U.S. News & World Report, pp. 60-61.
  2. Elliott, L. (1991) Know your backyard bird sounds: Yard, city, and garden birds (eastern/central). Ithaca, NY: NatureSound Studio.
  3. Freethy, R. (1990) Secrets of bird life: A guide to bird biology (rev. ed.). London: Blandford.
  4. Stokes, D.W. & Stokes, L.Q. (1983) A guide to bird behavior (vol. II & III). Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

  5. Walton, R.K. (1994) Songbirds and familiar backyard birds (eastern/
    western regions). National Audubon Society pocket guides. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Additional sources of information

  1. American Backyard Bird Society
    PO Box 10046
    Rockville, MD 20849
    (301) 309-1431
  2. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
    159 Sapsucker Woods Road
    Ithaca, NY 14850
    (800) 843-2473
  3. Migratory Bird Center
    Smithsonian Institution
    National Zoological Park
    Washington, DC 20008
  4. Office of Migratory Bird Management
    U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
    Room 634, Arlington Square
    4401 N. Fairfax Drive
    Arlington, VA 22203
    (703) 358-1821

Main Activity

Calling All Birds
Examine why anatomy helps determine the sounds we make.

When you talk, you use your voice box. A bird makes sounds with a vocal organ called the syrinx. The vibration of thin muscles in the syrinx creates its song. Investigate and compare the vocal organ of a bird with that of a human.


Note: Make an overhead transparency by photocopying the artwork on this page, cutting out the illustrations, and transferring them to a transparency. Make sure the names of the parts do not appear on the transparency.

1. Give each student two sheets of paper.
2. Show the transparency with an overhead projector. Have everyone draw an outline of the bird's chest, neck, and head. As you explain the different parts of a bird's anatomy that help make its songs, have each student add those parts and label them.
3. Show the transparency of a person's vocal cords and anatomy. Have each student then draw an outline of the person. Explain the different parts of the body that a person uses to speak. As a part is discussed, have each student draw the additional part in its normal location on the outline, labeling each part.
4. Place the two outlines beside one another. Discuss differences and similarities that exist between a bird and a person. What effect would these differences have in determining the sounds a person makes compared to a bird's sound?

1. Besides sound, in what other ways do birds and humans communicate?
2. How is bird behavior different or similar to that of people (hair vs. feathers, gestures vs. wing positions)? Why does your voice become scratchy and deep when you have a sore throat?

Pick out a local bird whose calls and songs you can recognize. Keep records of where and when you hear it. Describe the sounds phonetically. Where is the bird and what is it doing when it vocalizes? How do the sounds relate to the bird's behavior?

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