Birds Can Really Belt Out A Tune. Learn How They Do It

Birds have amazing voices. We hear them sing often in spring, trying to attract a mate or defending their nests. They can chirp, call or have a long song.

What is truly spectacular is how they can hit these notes, sometimes two notes at the same time. If you really listen to a bird song, do you think you can mimic it back?


Voice boxes


Humans, along with other mammals, amphibians and reptiles, have a larynx. This is a voice box at the top of our throats. It helps us breathe and makes sure food doesn’t fall in our airway. It also includes tissue called vocal cords that vibrates as air passes through. The vibrating of the vocal cords is how we make sound. Birds also have a larynx, but it doesn’t have anything to do with sound. Instead, birds have a special voice box called a syrinx. It is a voice box at the bottom of the throat where the windpipe splits into the two lungs. It houses two sets of vocal cords that can be operated independently.


Bird idols


Two sets of vocal cords can make magic happen. A northern cardinal can start singing notes on one set and then effortlessly switch to the other set without stopping for a breath. They can produce more notes than there are on a piano keyboard in a tenth of a second. Meanwhile, a wood thrush can sing in two different pitches at the same time. When it sings, it sounds like the pitch is rising and falling all at the same time.


Check out the sounds of a wood thrush song.


Mimics


If your mind hasn’t been blown yet, buckle up. Not only can birds make incredible songs unique to their own species, some birds can mimic other birds’ songs and calls. Some can even master frog calls!


Birds in the Mimidae family are famous for singing a diverse playlist of bird artists. For example, northern mockingbirds can sing 200 different songs, while brown thrashers can sing up to 3,000 different songs. Gray catbirds are mostly known for their catlike “mew” call, but they can also DJ mash-up hits using other birds calls jumbled up forming one song. Blue jays are known for their imitations, like a standup comedian. Blue jays specialize in raptor calls. It can scream like a Cooper’s hawk, an osprey or an American kestrel. Scientist think they imitate to scare off birds, protect food sources or even just for fun.


It is a tough challenge for humans to mimic birds, but the most famous mimic in the world is a bird that has conquered bird sounds as well as man-made sounds! The superb lyrebird of Australia is a pheasant-sized songbird that can mimic so well that the original bird singers get fooled by the song. Although not common, this bird has also mastered camera noises, car alarms and even a chainsaw!


Check out this bird in concert. https://youtu.be/XjAcyTXRunY


Now it’s your turn. Get outside and see what you can hear! Here are some ideas to stay in tune:

  • Record songs on your phone to compare the different tunes and pitches.

  • Try to sing along! Can you match all the notes?

  • Create words to the bird songs. Birders have already added in words to help remember the songs. For example, an eastern towhee sings, “Drink your tea!”

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