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Birds Sounds 101: Chirping, Squawking, and Singing

bird sounds
Eastern Meadowlark vocalizing: Photo by Elliott Ress

The Varied Voices of Our Feathered Friends

Walking through the woods or a neighborhood park, our ears are often filled with a chorus of chirps, songs, and calls of our avian neighbors. Birds use their diverse vocalizations to communicate a wide range of information critical to their survival. Let’s explore the array of sounds birds make, how they produce these vocalizations, and the reasons behind their melodies and chatter.

How Bird Sounds are Made

Diagram of a bird’s syrinx. Credit from

Birds lack vocal cords like humans. Instead, they create sounds via a specialized voice box called a syrinx located at the junction of the trachea and bronchi. Air is pushed from the lungs through the syrinx, causing membranes located there to vibrate and generate sound. 

The muscles controlling the syrinx allow many birds to sing more than one note at the same time. The syrinx also enables rapid switches between notes and controlling separate sides independently. Most species also have a song box region in their brain that controls learning and producing vocalizations. 

Some birds like parrots, hummingbirds, and lyrebirds have especially sophisticated syringeal and vocal learning capabilities. Species in the crow and thrush families also stand out for their intricate bird songs.

Why Do Birds Sing and Call?

Birds vocalize for many important reasons:

  • Territory defense – Songs proclaim ownership of space and warn rivals away.
  • Attracting mates – Special courtship songs help charm potential partners.
  • Welcoming spring – Dawn choruses mark renewal and excitation for breeding season. 
  • Group communication – Contact calls aid flock cohesion during feeding and flight.
  • Alarm signals – Scolds and chirps alert others to danger.
  • Navigation – Nocturnal flight calls help birds orient during migrations. 
  • Identifying their species – Songs allow recognition of their own kind.
  • Individual recognition – Petrels and parrots can distinguish their mate or chick’s unique voice.
  • Mimicry and play – Some birds incorporate other sounds, or sing just for enjoyment.

Bird Song vs. Bird Call

  • There are differences between bird songs and calls:
  • Songs are complex, long, musical vocalizations used primarily for courtship and breeding.

Calls tend to serve more utilitarian purposes like alarms, keeping flocks together, or proclaiming territory. They are simpler, shorter, and more mundane.

However, these categories often blend together. A bird may sing a simple song, or give a repetitive call while breeding. Mimic thrushes master other species’ songs. And some birds like lyrebirds perform elaborate imitations. Context ultimately determines whether a vocalization functions as a song or call.

The Joy of Birding by Ear

While visually identifying birds is satisfying, learning their distinct voices provides an intimate new connection. You gain awareness of their language and communications. Challenging yourself to recognize birdsong families like warblers and shorebirds exercises your ears and memory.

Here are tips for improving your birding by ear skills:

  • Use recordings to learn vocalizations – then test yourself during walks. 
  • Focus on tone, pitch, rhythm, speed – does the bird trill or buzz?
  • Note habitat and behavior clues – is it ground-bound or canopy? 
  • Time of year indicates likely singers – what migrants are present?
  • Remember song variants – regional dialects and mimicry occur.

Soon you’ll pick out the musical whistle of the wood thrush, the raspy jay squawk, the bold proclamations of cardinals, and more. Your birding adventures will be enriched by this new sensory awareness.

Meet the Loud & Proud Chirpers

Many species proudly broadcast their chirps and songs as a form of communication and territorial display. Here are some details on the vocalizations of the gartered trogon, common chiffchaff, and eclectus parrot:

Gartered Trogon – This Central American species makes a loud, far-carrying cuh cuh cuh cuh call. Its voice proclaims and defends its rainforest territory. 

Common Chiffchaff – A vocal Eurasian warbler, its repetitive onomatopoeic chiffchaff song is a hallmark spring sound in Europe.

Moluccan Eclectus – This bright Australian parrot has a shrieking, repetitive chirp often produced in noisy flocks. It can be a disruptive urban noisemaker.

The unique vocalizations of these three species help the birds identify their own kind, defend resources, and communicate other important information. Their loud, persistent chirping is a key identifier and natural behavior. Next time you encounter noisy bird sounds, listen closely to see if it’s one of these vocal showboaters!

The Next Time You Hear Bird Sounds

As composers like Mozart and Beethoven knew well, birdsong symbolizes nature’s choir, lifting our spirits and connecting us to something larger in the world. The next time you hear melodies ringing through springtime air or a chickadee’s call, take a moment to appreciate the beauty. It represents a universal language shared across human and avian cultures. Listening provides a portal into birds’ lives and brings us closer to the natural systems we’re all a part of.