Sounds like car alarms and cell phones may seem totally out of place coming from backyard shrubbery, but there might be a simple explanation – a skilled avian mimic, working through its playlist.
Some birds can replicate more than 200 sounds, from other birds and animals to car engines and catcalls. But why do birds imitate sounds? Keep reading as we look deeper into the fascinating subject of mimicry in birds.
Certain bird species are more vocally skilled than others, and during their lifetime can master hundreds of diverse sounds. Leading reasons behind this copycat behavior includes attracting a mate, avoiding predators, and social interaction, both with other birds and also with humans.
Mimicry plays a significant role in the courtship rituals of some birds. Showing off their vocal talents gives male birds a headstart when attempting to attract mates. The wider the range of songs and calls a bird can reproduce, the higher regard it will be held in by potential mates.
Sage Thrashers are expert mimics
Birds may use imitation to intimidate predators or to cause unrest in their immediate habitat, and to guarantee their own safety. Imitating predators such as hawks and eagles that are about to swoop on prey works to confuse and unsettle them.
Highly territorial birds, hawks may become disoriented if they think another similar-sized bird is also hunting nearby. Imitating the alarm calls of other small birds may draw these birds out to investigate the distress signal, leaving them to handle any fallout while their own mate, nest site and young are safe from disturbance.
Parrots, myna birds, cockatoos and cockatiels that are bred or kept in captivity spend a lot of their lives listening as humans chat to them.
Parrots have shaped tongues that allow them to make sounds that are impossible to most birds, enabling them to form words and human-like sounds, although most researchers agree that it should be termed mimicry and imitation rather than spontaneous two-way conversation.
For more insight into which birds are excellent mimics and how these copycat powers benefit them, please read on.
Cockatoos kept in captivity spend a lot of their lives listening to human speech
Mockingbirds are expert mimics, with the ability to copy sounds made by humans, animals, other birds, and objects such as telephones and car alarms with such accuracy that it is impossible to distinguish between the true sound and the mockingbird’s impression.
Male mockingbirds have the ability to continue adding new sounds to their ‘mimicry bank’ and in their lifetime are said to be able to master over 200 distinct noises.
Sage thrashers, close relatives of mockingbirds, are champion mimics, able to replicate the sounds of other birds they have encountered in their habitat. Their Latin name, Oreoscoptes montanus, means “mimic of the mountains”.
Myna birds claim the crown as the birds capable of the most convincing attempt at mimicking human speech. They are able to replicate words and phrases with near-perfect intonation.
Parrots are among the most famous copycat birds, and those that spend a large amount of time in human company can master an extensive vocabulary of words and phrases. Budgerigars can also be trained to repeat words they have frequently been exposed to hearing.
Lyrebirds are perhaps the master mimics of the avian world, with the ability to to copy a wealth of artificial and natural sounds it has heard in the environment in which it lives. These can include chainsaws, car alarms, camera shutters, dogs barking and music.
Lyrebirds can copy a wealth of artificial and natural sounds heard in the environment in which they live
Scientists believe that certain birds possess such advanced imitation abilities based on the presence of particular anatomical features.
Parrots’ tongues are uniquely shaped and mobile within their beaks; this enables them to learn and repeat sounds that they have heard humans making. Parrots are naturally sociable birds and are born with an instinct to communicate, so their ability to mimic human speech and other sounds enhances their social bond with their owners.
Birds all have similarly structured syrinxes (voice box organs), so why do only a handful possess the ability to imitate to such a high standard?
Scientists think it is partly due to clusters of neurons found only in the brains of passerines (songbirds), jays and corvids which are particularly receptive to learning vowel sounds.
Their ability is also partly due to the anatomical features inside their beaks, and also in part linked to their innate sociability.
Myna birds can produce the most convincing human speech sounds
Birds skilled in mimicry are able to reproduce a vast range of sounds, from the calls of other birds, noises made by mammals, human speech, and all manner of other beeps, whistles, alarms, sirens, mechanical whirs and even catcalls.
Catbirds are the bird world’s most celebrated mimics of felines, emitting a cry that sounds identical to a cat meowing.
Lyrebirds are highly skilled impressionists and can repeat any sound imaginable, including the mechanical whirring of a car engine or the piercing wail of a fire alarm with incredible accuracy.
The sounds a bird mimics reflect the noises it is exposed to in its natural environment. Those living in close proximity to human habitation may imitate a selection of non-natural sounds, including cell phones, door chimes, vehicle engines and TV theme tunes.
Countryside-dwelling birds’ mimicry range will include a number of calls and vocalizations made by birds and animals that share its habitat.
The aptly named catbird can produce the sound of a cats meow
Certain birds are well-known mimics of human speech, and other species that are commonly kept in human company can be trained to repeat words and phrases and have a wide repertoire of cues that they can follow or copy.
The Hill myna of Southeast Asia can mimic humans with highly accurate intonation and inflection. Parakeets and cockatoos are also able to reproduce words they have heard frequently. Parrots are famous as “talking birds”, with the African grey being perhaps the most capable example.
African grey parrots form a close bond with their owners and their intelligence and keenness to communicate makes them especially receptive to mastering the art of mimicry.
Hill Mynas can mimic humans with high precision
Mimicry plays an important role in the courtship rituals of many birds. The ability to mimic is a desirable quality in a mate, as it demonstrates intelligence and a strong survival instinct.
Male mockingbirds can be heard refining their ‘greatest hits’ catalog on a nightly basis. These performances are thought to be aimed at attracting a mate, with showcases of larger and more elaborate repertoires showing off a bird’s age and experience.
Birds that are talented mimics will frequently use their skills to mimic other birds, especially larger predators, to cause confusion and ward off potential threats.
Blue jays are known to be able to copy the cry of a hawk to such an accurate degree that it is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. This not only confuses a hunting hawk and scares off any other nearby potential predators, but also alerts other nearby birds to the danger.
Jays are highly territorial, so if they hear another “jay” on the patch they are staking out, they will beat a quick retreat, leaving the impersonating jay in safety.
South American songbird, the thick-billed euphonia, is termed a “deceitful mimic”, as when it senses a predator nearby, imitates the distress call of other birds nesting nearby.
This trick spurs the other birds into a frenzy, and they noisily attempt to see off the threat, while the euphonia remains undisturbed and out of danger.
Blue Jays can copy the cry of hawks
The Thick-billed Euphonia is labelled as a deceitful mimic
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.