Three weeks ago my brother Richard called to tell me his orioles had left. I noticed mine disappeared from the feeder August 21. I’m experiencing much quieter mornings without the bird songs of summer. Now it looks like the grosbeaks have flown the coop too, taking their song south! So, why do birds sing? Besides the obvious I realized I really didn’t know why birds sing.
In the spring, the males often come north before the females, select nesting sites and begin singing to attract a mate. When the females arrive they find their mates or choose a mate with the best nest song and nesting site. Location! Location! Knowing which birds are singing can help identify birds better. I have an Audubon Field Guide in my window where the outdoor bird feeders are located. I’ve gone online to learn more about bird songs to ID them.
There’s a large dead elm outside our house that attracts a myriad of birds year round. In the spring it’s a stage for avian rock stars. I had a redheaded woodpecker nesting in this tree for a few years and when he arrived we knew it. This bird was up at the crack of dawn singing like The Beatles on tour, waking the entire household! Robins are probably the most anticipated and recognized birds nationwide. This summer I was sitting in the yard when a single robin began singing the longest and most intricate and varied song I’d ever heard.
I went to www.thespruce, an online site dedicated to birds and birders that says, “Birds have very complex vocalizations, often with more than one tone produced simultaneously, thanks to their (voice box) that allows them to create independent sounds in different parts of their trachea. Songs are longer and more musical than calls and incorporate a range of pitches, longer sequences and repeated rhythms. In many cases it’s only the males that sing but they will sing duets during mating. Bird songs can be used to attract a mate to new food source, incubation duty or to simply keep in touch while feeding or flying.”
I think of bird songs mostly for mating that strengthen pair bonds but many birds that sing year-round do not migrate. They have to defend their territory and will often be with the same mate year-round. I realized cardinals in my yard sing year round, as do chickadees and even sparrows. Some birds seem to sing for the pure joy of it and many experts debate over the idea that some birds sing for emotional reasons, but that concept is still being researched.
Baby birds aren’t born with a full vocabulary and do not know how to sing. They communicate with their parents with begging calls for food. How do they learn to sing and is it a language or do they just mimic their parents? Birds often mimic other birds as I often do to them and get varied responses. Mockingbirds not only mimic other birds but they also mimic car horns, cell phones and other mechanical noises. Although there are some dangers in singing most bird singing is worth the risk. And then there is night singing where owls and whippoorwills come to life but that’s an entirely different story.
Jim Bennett is an outdoorsman who lives and worked in the St. Croix River Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.