Nightingales, Mockingbirds, Thrushes, and Robins are well known for their tuneful vocal powers, with bright melodious phrases carried across woodlands and backyards on spring mornings. Equally familiar are the harsh cawing of Crows, squawking of Seagulls, and cooing of Doves.
Songs and calls are used as a vital form of communication between birds, to defend territories, attract mates, keep in contact with family members, and more.
To learn about the significance of different bird vocalizations, please read on!
No natural sound is more varied and diverse than the early morning symphony of the dawn chorus, as birds wake to start their day and sing as the sun rises.
A rich cacophony of trills, whistles, cheeps, and wheezes may sound like an orchestra or choir rehearsing for the world’s most elaborate concert. However, by tuning in to different elements and focusing on the individual phrases and patterns, our ears can be trained to pick out different species, and it’s possible to quickly become familiar with the different birds you can hear.
The songbirds you’ll hear during the dawn chorus are singing primarily to defend their territories or attempt to find a mate. But bird vocalizations are not restricted to tuneful songs.
Equally important are the caws, the piercing screeches, the quacks, the hoots, and the rapid chattering and cheeping that birds use to communicate with each other on a daily basis. These calls can convey messages about food availability, threats or predators nearby, location, and generally keeping in contact with flockmates.
Pictured: A Northern Mockingbird. They are well known for their tuneful vocal powers
Becoming familiar with common bird calls and when they are most likely to be heard offers valuable insight into bird communication and behavior. Calls are used between pairs to stay in contact when feeding or during migration, to warn of danger or threat, and to keep young chicks together and safe from harm. Read on to learn more about what we can learn by tuning in to some of the most common bird calls.
The chief reason that birds use calls is to stay in contact with nearby family members or flockmates or to warn nearby birds of danger.
Mostly short and simple in structure, calls are used in response to danger, for example, to broadcast the arrival of a predator near to a mate or nest site, to warn other nearby birds of potential threats, to announce their own arrival at a nest site to relieve incubation duties or with food for a mate of young and to stay in.
Short, repetitive trills may signal immediate danger and resound through a neighborhood, increasing in pitch and urgency until all nearby species are aware and the threat is deterred.
Contact calls between nesting pairs are usually much quieter in pitch, to avoid drawing unwanted attention to a nest site.
Pictured: A Blackcap in the forest singing from the trees
Bird calls all have specific functions, from staying in contact with mates and offspring both on the nest and in flight, warning of a nearby threat or predator, alerting other birds to the presence of food or a hostile confrontational call, attempting to drive away an intruder approaching a nest site.
Calls are short and usually relatively simple, rather than longer, more complicated tunes with a varied pitch. All calls have a distinct purpose and birds themselves invariably instinctively know the meanings when they hear them.
When faced with a predator, a loud, frenzied call will be used in an attempt to intimidate the threat and drive them away. Harsh, repetitive calls are frequently heard in such situations, with smaller birds wishing to appear larger and louder than they actually are.
Calls allow birds to stay in contact with family members and flockmates when foraging or migrating. Scolding calls may be used by ducks to keep their newly hatched ducklings together when they first venture onto a pond or lake.
Ducks may use scolding calls to keep their newly hatched ducklings together when they first venture onto a pond or lake
Not all bird songs sound the same – that would effectively defeat the point of birds putting their heart and soul into belting out tuneful melodies from the treetops. Even birds of the same species may sing slightly varied versions of the same basic tune.
Songs are mostly heard during the breeding season, where they help males attract mates by advertising their presence in a territory. Song can also be used to defend a territory, as a bold and noisy symbol of a bird’s presence in a specific area.
While calls are heard throughout the year and can signal alarm, warning, contact between family or flock members, and the need for food, songs have a more specific purpose and are heard primarily in the context of mating or territorial display.
Songs are more complex and tuneful, consisting of a series of notes and phrases of a varied tempo and pitch. While calls are made by both males and females and serve a functional purpose, to convey a particular message between birds, songs are usually only produced by breeding-age males and reach a peak early in the breeding season.
Birdsong may take the form of one or more of the following elements: tweets, whistles, chirping, chattering and flowing, warbling phrases, haphazard grating notes, or repeated melodies, rising and falling in pitch and volume. Waking early to admire a dawn chorus on a spring day may treat you to a combination of some, if not all, of these sounds.
A loud, clear song is a reflection of robust health and strong genetics and is a highly desired quality in a mate. Males that sing the loudest, most beautiful songs are in great demand by females looking to breed. The song is usually the first element to catch a prospective mate’s attention, so a lasting impression is made by the most vocal and tuneful males.
Similarly, males who sing the loudest have a reputation as being the best defenders of a territory. Birds with the most impressive repertoire and stamina to belt out a long playlist of melodies have a reputation as being the most successful at keeping a territory free from predators and rivals and, therefore, offering the most secure environment for raising young.
Pictured: A Kingfisher calling out to defend his territory from predators
Birdsong is at its richest and most sonorous at the start of the breeding season, when pairs form ahead of raising young. Males compete with each other to produce the most impressive vocal performances, and when females make their choice of mate, strong singing abilities are a major factor in their chance of being selected.
In summer, many birds tend to lie low, once breeding is underway or complete, and they begin their annual molt into a nonbreeding plumage. This is the quietest season for birdsong, as it is no longer necessary to draw attention to themselves or defend a territory as actively.
Some species begin looking for mates early in winter or may begin singing before the arrival of spring, as a response to brighter weather or artificial light conditions.
On migration grounds, many bird species may take the opportunity of socializing near unfamiliar species, and spend several weeks and months acquiring new songs that they overhear in their temporary surroundings, and then rehearsing ahead of the breeding season so as to stand a greater chance of impressing a female.
Pictured: A Bluethroat. Birdsong is at its richest and most sonorous at the start of the breeding season
Sometimes, identifying a bird by listening to its call is even more accurate than a visual confirmation. Listening to the songs of birds that are incredibly similar in appearance to other birds can offer an accurate and undisputable way of verifying a sighting.
Read on to learn more about species in which a snippet of a song is more helpful than a glimpse of a plumage when it comes to identification.
Audio clips of calls and songs of more than 90 percent of the world’s bird species have now been recorded, which has significantly helped develop our understanding of and familiarity with the sounds we hear around us when we enter their natural habitats.
Song is often the first alert we have to a bird’s presence and has the advantage of offering a clear and longer-lasting chance for observation, particularly when light is poor or undergrowth is dense.
Apps have been developed that aim to offer accurate species identification on the basis of an audio recording of song clips in the field. This is particularly helpful when a sighting alone doesn’t quite offer clear enough confirmation of a species.
An Eastern Towhee singing from the top branch of a tree
The Wood Thrush is often named as the North American bird with the most beautiful song, with loud fluted notes trilling around woodlands. Wood thrush are notoriously elusive birds and are heard far more often than they are seen.
The eerie wavering call of the Common Loon is unusual among waterbirds, with yodeling cries exchanged between pairs a memorable sound when heard reverberating across the surface of a lakeside or reservoir.
A familiar night-time call is the Barred Owl’s nightly hooting, usually transcribed as ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’
Among British birds, common garden visitors, including European Robins and Blackbirds, have perhaps the most familiar calls, heard on a daily basis all year round. Blackbirds’ scolding 'chak chak chak' calls are heard to alert neighborhood birds of danger, often in the form of a passing pet cat. Robins are known for their cheery flowing song.
Summer visitors to the UK, and increasingly rare, Cuckoos have an unmistakable call, heard in woodlands only for a brief period each year, but still one of the country’s most instantly recognizable bird songs.
Pictured: A Barred Owl. A familiar night-time call is the nightly hooting of this species
It’s impossible to imagine spending time outdoors without the background accompaniment of birdsong or calls. Even the most built-up areas are punctuated by cooing of pigeons, cawing of crows or chirping of sparrows.
By understanding the significance of these calls, we are able to develop a deeper insight into how birds interact with their own species and react to others living nearby.
Birdsong offers a rich variety in sound and tone, and it’s satisfying to master new melodies and be able to identify species based on their song.
By familiarizing yourself with common songs and using birdsong ID apps to check your suggestions, it’s possible to master the art of identification by its song as well as the more traditional method of by its plumage.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.