Why Do Birds Sing?

 You hear this every spring. We all hear it, and most of us do not pay any attention. Most of us don’t understand it because it’s not in our language. It is a long musical sound—a birdsong! Birds use their songs to communicate different messages to one another. They also use calls, shorter sounds like “cheep” and “chirp.” Calls have different meanings from songs. People who study bird sounds are learning their meanings.

Usually it is the male that sings. Early in spring he sings to say that he has picked out a piece of property. He sings to attract a female of his same kind. Together they will raise a family in his territory. He sings to tell all other birds of his kind to keep out.

Each kind of bird has its own type of song. Cardinals sing something that sounds a little like “What cheer, cheer, cheer.” Towhees sing, “Drink your tea.” Ovenbirds sing, “Teacher, teacher, teacher.” People have thought of these words to help them remember the songs. Most birds sing songs that are too complicated or too fast for words. But with practice you can learn to recognize many birds just by their songs.

Most of the time birds pay attention only to the songs of birds of their own kind. Cardinals answer cardinals, and song sparrows answer song sparrows. When I hear a bird singing from its territory, I often hear another of the same kind singing back. A cardinal knows that a song sparrow will not try to steal its mate. So you can see one reason why a cardinal may chase away another cardinal but will not bother a song sparrow.

Most different kinds of birds eat different things or hunt for their food in different places. For example, with its heavier bill the cardinal can catch large insects for its young. The smaller song sparrow can take tinier bits of food from smaller places. But two cardinals would look for the same kinds of food in the same kinds of places. So you can see another reason why a cardinal would chase another cardinal from its territory. It probably would ignore a song sparrow since the song sparrow would often be eating other kinds of food.

When I watch my bird feeder, I often see different kinds of birds chasing each other. The feeder offers in one small place a large amount of food that many birds like and can get at easily. By scattering the seeds around on the ground, I can reduce the competition and the chasing.

In the wild, birds fight and chase much less about food. A few seeds are in one place, a few in another. One insect is here, another there.

To find enough to eat for itself and its family, a bird needs a big piece of land to search in. Many kinds of birds have some way of dividing up the land into territories. Song sparrows, cardinals, ovenbirds, mockingbirds, house wrens, white-throated sparrows, and indigo buntings are some of the birds that have territorial systems.

Especially in early spring, birds work out the boundaries between their territories by singing “keep out” threats and by chasing and fighting each other. The birds continue singing to tell females that they have set up territories. Neighboring birds seem to agree that there are make-believe fences between their pieces of property. Then they do not have to waste energy chasing each other instead of taking care of their young.

Scientists guessed that some birds could recognize their neighbors by small differences in their songs. In a similar way you might recognize your neighbors if you heard them talk but couldn’t see them.

Two scientists who studied white-throated sparrows found that these birds can even tell the difference between songs of individual birds of their own kind. White-throated sparrows have songs that seem to say “I’m your neighbor” or “I’m a stranger” or “I’m your neighbor to the west.” Other kinds of birds could tell neighbors from strangers by their songs, too.

The next time you hear a bird singing, listen to it. If it’s in early spring, you might hear a bird singing to attract a mate. Perhaps you’ll see birds chasing and hear them singing, agreeing on a property line. Later in the spring you may hear two birds answering each other. They are telling their neighbors, their mates, and anyone else who is listening that they are still there.

-------------------By Mary Sue Waser

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