In North America, both male and female birds can sing before, during, and even after the breeding season. Learn more about how long male birds will continue to sing!
This question initially appeared in the Flocking Around Mailbag:
"Do male birds continue to sing through the summer or just the ones that weren't lucky enough to find a mate?"
We love this question, as bird song is such a unique part of birding! Let's get our beaks wet!
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Why do birds sing?
Birdsong is a conspicuous avian vocalization often used by birds for mate attraction and territorial 'defense.' There are other uses for birdsong, but science is still learning about the complexity of the sounds from the bird world. Birdsong can seem simple to human ears, but it is often far more complex than our basic hearing can interpret. Simply, birds sing as part of the breeding and territorial needs within their annual cycle, though songs can relay other information that is not fully understood by science.
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How do birds sing?
In mammals, sound is produced through the vocal cords of the larynx. However, in birds, the larynx does not contain vocal cords. In birds, sound is produced in a muscle-covered, cartilaginous expansion of the trachea, known as the syrinx. The syrinx is located at the bifurcation (split) of the trachea. There are exceptions to this rule, as some birds produce sound using a bronchial syrinx, tracheobronchial syrinx, or a tracheal bulb or sac.
As air passes through the syrinx, it can cause vibrations of the walls, similar to a drum. Or muscles can constrict the openings of each bronchus, producing sound as air rushes from the lungs.
Do birds sing because they are happy?
There are very few ways (or possibly none) to measure if a bird sings due to emotions. However, there is no common thought or research that shows birds sing due to happiness or mourning. If research comes out to the contrary, you had better believe we will be making some serious 'flocking' updates here! In the meantime, while I always encourage everyone to enjoy birds in their own way, I would discourage the sharing of information that is likely to be untrue. So please, when kids or others ask, "Why do birds sing?" Do not answer "Because they are happy." Our knowledge has grown far beyond that!
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Do female birds sing?
This question is important to the greater conversation. A myth exists that is in need of some serious busting. Male birds are NOT the only singers in the bird world. Female birds can also have beautiful, complex songs that can rival that of their male counterparts. However, generally speaking, female songbirds have a more simplified repertoire of songs than males. This is likely not true for all birds, but scientists are making serious efforts to grow our understanding of when, where, and why female birds join in the vocalization efforts around song!
Want to learn more about birds? Check out the Manual of Ornithology!
Are there multiple types of bird songs?
Not only do male and female birds exhibit different types of songs, but songs vary geographically, elevationally, seasonally, and individually. However, within each individual bird can reside countless variations of songs! Just like humans can use hundreds of pickup lines to pitch some woo, birds have a musical woo-ing library.
How long do birds sing?
Bird song will decrease the deeper into the breeding season you are listening. How long a male bird will sing depends on the species and breeding location! Some species of bird can be heard singing all year. While attracting a mate may is not important to a male bird, after successful mating attempts and females have begun nesting, males and females will defend their territories into fall and even winter! In fact, a migratory species like the Yellow Warbler may stop singing in the nonbreeding season, but they will still defend their winter territories using sound! Successful males can and will continue singing late into the breeding season. How cool?!
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Why do many birds stop singing in winter?
One last interesting note. As the breeding season comes to an end, the song-control centers in the brain will SHRINK! While that may seem insignificant, that portion of the brain GROWS again at the beginning of the next breeding season. This is important for health research, as new neurons are CREATED during this process. It was long believed that adult vertebrates were incapable of creating new neurons.
Sing your heart out!
Bird song is a proven boon to human mental and physical health. Create a yard that supports a healthy bird population, and you will create a yard that supports your health. While birds sing to establish territories, attract mates, and not show how happy they are, their song can still provide joy to you and me!
Enjoy bird song from an ethical distance with a spotting scope!
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