Birdsong is one of nature’s richest and most inspiring sounds. Whilst not all birds sing, all birds make noises, and many are capable of intricate vocalisation. If birds can sing, then surely they can hear, so do birds have ears?
Birds do have ears, but they’re built differently to humans and other mammals. Bird ears are similar to lizard ears - they’re tunnel-like openings just behind the eyes and are protected by feathery flaps called auriculars. Auriculars help channel sound to the ear whilst protecting it from solid particles and air turbulence when flying.
Birdsong and avian hearing was a fascination of biologist and naturalist Charles Darwin, who observed the many ways in which birds use complex vocalisations as a type of melodic language.
Despite having no easily visible ears, avian hearing is highly developed and has an intriguing evolutionary history; read on to discover more facts about bird ears and related topics!
Birds do have ears, but they are not visible
Birds have a well-developed ear despite not having a complex outer ear like mammals.
Birds have an audible frequency range of around 100Hz to 14,000Hz, which is slightly narrower than humans. Humans can hear as low as 20Hz, which is a low bass note or distant rumble of thunder and as high as 20,000Hz, which is extremely high-pitched, something like the highest playable note on a violin. Despite their narrower range of hearing, some experiments have found that birds can detect infrasound, which are frequencies recorded below 20Hz. It’s unclear whether birds hear infrasound with their ears or detect it in some other way.
Avian hearing is also generally less sensitive than mammalian hearing but sensitive in the 1kHz to 4kHz range, and there are some intriguing adaptations that give avian hearing an edge over many other animals. One such feature of bird ears is that, despite not having an external ear (pinnae) that mammals have, they’re still adept at pinpointing the exact location of a sound.
Researchers believe that the structure of the entire head helps birds pinpoint sounds, as well as their ability to accurately distinguish between different pitches.
A pair of swallows communicating with one another
Birds with particularly good hearing include owls who rely on both their excellent sight and their hearing to hunt prey in the pitch black of night.
Some species of owls have misaligned or asymmetrical ears that allow them to pinpoint the location of a sound with much better accuracy than humans. The misalignment creates a sort of time delay between one ear and the other, helping them decode where even the quietest noises are coming from.
Some owls like the Boreal Owl and Barn Owl have faces that look a bit like radar dishes - they’re designed to ‘catch’ sound and filter it through to their ears. They can even tweak the position of this ‘radar dish’ using their facial muscles. Together with their excellent sight, owls have some of the finest and most well-adapted senses in the animal kingdom.
Barn Owls have excellent hearing abilities
No species of birds have been demonstrated to hear ultrasonic sounds. In fact, birds do not have especially sensitive ears at high frequencies and have a narrower audible frequency range than humans.
There are a few animals that can accurately hear ultrasound, like bats and dolphins, but it’s not a common ability. Insects are also adept at hearing ultrasound and sensing ultrasonic vibrations.
A bird’s ear has no specialised name. The structure differs from mammalian ears in that there is no outer ear structure, called the pinnae. They still have an outer ear, though, as well as a middle and inner ear. The outer ear is just a tube that leads to their eardrum.
Bird ears are shielded by an auricular, a complex set of feathers that helps protect the ear from air turbulence and particles and helps funnel sound into the ear from across the bird’s head.
These aren’t to be confused with ear tufts which are most notably observed protruding from the head of the Great Horned owl. Despite looking like ears, these have nothing to do with hearing and are instead used for camouflage and communication.
Great Horned Owls look like they have ears on the top of their heads, however they are just ear tufts and not ears.
Birdsong is not dissimilar from human music and has inspired countless pieces of music as well as poems, books and art.
Some species of birds certainly have tremendous musical abilities and love to sing - a songbird might sing some 1,000 to 2,500 times every day! Parrots are a regular sight on social media, bopping, dancing and nodding along to the music - and they certainly seem to be enjoying themselves.
As such, birds certainly seem like musical animals, but do they really like music?
Studies have demonstrated that birds are good listeners and that they seem to understand music. After all, birdsong has the musical properties of pitch, tone, timbre and rhythm, much the same as human music. There is some evidence to support that birds understand music; one notable study in 1984 found that pigeons could differentiate between Bach and Stravinsky, and in 2012, researchers found that bird's had analogous auditory brain structures to humans, meaning that they're possibly able to understand the same characteristics of music as we do. Further experiments similarly discovered that birds share some of the same intricate brain structures as humans, despite our common ancestors being some 320 million years old.
Perhaps most fascinating is that researchers have found birds enjoy their birdsongs in a similar way to how humans enjoy our own music. This shows that birds don't just sing for the sake of courtship, marking their territory and communication, but simply because they enjoy it.
A notorious singer, the European Robin
If you think about it, there are few, if any, other creatures in the animal kingdom that produce advanced melodic sound in the same way as birds and humans. Other animals have vocal calls, but these don't have the same level of complex musical features such as timbre, rhythm, pitch and tone.
The short answer is yes, some birds appear to 'like' music in the same way we do, and they possibly sing their complex songs not just for the sake of courtship, mating and communication, but also simply because they enjoy them. As far as music goes, humans and birds are not too dissimilar!
A huge variety of birds sing. Some, like the Sedge Warbler and Brown Thrasher, have thousands of songs in their repertoire.
The musical properties of birdsong fascinated Darwin and are documented in The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) and On the Origin of Species (1859). He theorised that birdsong evolved to help birds communicate and survive, but the fact it evolved with such complexity still baffles scientists today.
We now know that Darwin was pretty much spot on. Firstly, birdsong acts as a means to attract a mate, and some birds are chosen on the basis that their songs are better than others. Birds also sing to announce their presence in their territory. As mentioned, birds don’t necessarily need a reason to sing at all - they sing because they enjoy singing, as would anyone who can sing as well as a songbird!
Brown Thrashers are capable of producing thousands of songs
Some foraging birds like Robins and blackbirds are known to detect moving invertebrates under the earth before they can actually see them. They also probe the ground with their beak, which helps them detect vibrations under the soil.
Bird hearing is generally most sensitive at close ranges, which is why birds have to get pretty close to the ground to be able to hear these sorts of sounds - the sound of an earthworm moving in the soil is extremely quiet after all.
There is some evidence to suggest that birds can recognise and identify humans by their voices as well as their appearance. Once a human voice becomes familiar to them, some birds can distinguish that human from others whose voices they do not recognise.
Whilst many birds from the songbird and parrot groups are excellent at mimicking human speech and will learn and repeat phrases spoken to them, some, like the Mynah bird, can actually create their own new sentences from words and phrases that they learn. In a sense, then, they can be taught to speak in a similar way to humans, though they’d likely lack any conceptual understanding of what the words actually mean.
Even birds that can’t mimic other sounds have complex calls and methods of communication. Bird communication is amongst the most complex of all animal communication and is the result of sustained evolution over many thousands of years. Birdsong, mimicry and bird communication still intrigue researchers today, and there is much left to learn.
Sedge Warblers are extremely vocal birds
Bird ears are hidden by protective feathers called auriculars. These protect the ear not only from dust and other particles but also from air turbulence when the bird flies. If you pulled back an auricular, a bird’s ear would look like a hole - or tunnel. They don’t have an outer ear like a human, so just imagine a human ear without the external ear component - you’d be left with just a hole!
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