In the desert, the cooing of doves is a soothing balm. A male Gambel quail moves his covey with imperious cries and quiet clucks. Mockingbirds contribute mightily to Nature’s music channel. Piercing screams alert us to red-tailed hawks circling overhead, and the hooting of great horned owls adds magic to our nights.
Birdsong summons our attention and connects us to the natural world. Louis Agassiz Fuertes said of the trill of a bird, “I think no sound I have ever heard has more deeply reached into me and taken hold.”
Birdsong doesn’t exist just to gladden the hearts of humans, though. Birds sing and call to communicate with one another. Birds may have a dozen or more calls used to interact with others of their kind. In addition, some birds sing. True songbirds are from the order of birds known as passerines, perching birds whose altricial young are born blind and helpless.
The day erupts in the hour before dawn with birds singing their hearts out. I always thought birds sang for joy, but of course, it’s more about sex. Usually it is the male that sings, and the dawn concert is a marking of territory. The dominant bird among a particular species reasserts his reign every day, while the younger and more submissive birds pipe up to make their voices heard, much like junior execs trying to sound impressive in management meetings.
Birdsong can either be learned or passed along genetically. Among those species that learn their songs, fathers and male neighbors tutor the youngsters. Zoologist and writer Dennis Kroodsma points out, “Learned bird song and human music are cultural tradition passed from one generation to the next.”
Ornithologists have discovered that songbirds know their neighbors by their songs. All the male songbirds of a species living in an established area have shared songs they call and answer with. They also have their own individual songs. A bird that does not know the shared songs is marked as an outsider. Females favor males that have many shared songs, an indication of stability.
Birds whose vocalizations are genetically coded include owls, doves, pigeons, ducks, geese, loons, shorebirds and gulls, and surprisingly, flycatchers. (Flycatchers are passerines, but nestlings have been recorded peeping a rendition of the adult flycatcher’s song.) Birds that inherit their songs still use those and other vocalizations to establish territories. Male woodpeckers dominate an area with noisy hammering.
Some passerines such as mockingbirds, corvids and European starlings build a repertoire of songs and vocalizations by mimicking other birds and even man-made sounds. Jays, crows and ravens don’t have a musical song, but are skilled at subtle intonations that add sophisticated nuance to their raucous calls.
Just a few species of birds include females in the choir. Northern cardinal, barred owl and Carolina wren females sing. But I feel sure that one way or another, females of all bird species manage to have their say.
To listen to the Northern Mockingbird Song, click here: Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyixLLMg3Xo
Sources: The Singing Life of Birds, Donald Kroodsma
The Bird Watchers Anthology, Roger Tory Peterson