Why do birds sing?

The song of a common, or Eurasian, blackbirdThe song of a common, or Eurasian, blackbirdClick to play video Birds sing both to defend their territories and attract mates. For this reason, it is males that usually do most of the singing—but not always. In most species, a male bird needs to “own” a territory before he can attract a female and breed successfully. A male claims his territory by singing in it. He usually uses shorter, simpler songs to defend it against rival males. When a male sings for females, his longer, more elaborate song shows he is fit and healthy—and would therefore make a good partner. In the tropics, females frequently sing too. Many perform duets with their male partners to strengthen the bond between them. Each species of bird has its own variety of songs. And just as humans speak with different accents or dialects, some bird species develop these, too, often because populations have become separated from one another by, for example, mountains or stretches of desert.

Dawn chorus on Tiritiri Matangi IslandDawn chorus on Tiritiri Matangi IslandClick to play video

Birdsong is particularly vigorous in spring—the ideal time to attract a mate, because by the time offspring have hatched, the weather is warmer and there is plenty of food about. Native bird species, which stay all year round, sing in winter to defend their territory. But when the days start getting longer at the beginning of spring, the male birds start singing for mates.

Why do many birds sing more intensely at dawn—what we call the dawn chorus—than they do at any other time of the day? No one knows for sure, but scientists think that many of the songs heard at dawn serve as warnings to other males in defence of their territory and their mate.

The location of a bird’s syrinxThe location of a bird’s syrinx

Birds use an organ in their throat called the syrinx to produce sounds. This is the equivalent of the larynx or voice box in humans. The syrinx contains membranes that vibrate and create sound waves when air from the lungs is breathed over them. The muscles of the syrinx control the sound the bird makes. Unlike our voice box, which is situated at the top of the trachea (windpipe), a bird's syrinx is positioned much lower down, at the junction of the two air tubes (bronchi) that connect with the lungs. Each side of the syrinx is independently controlled. This allows birds to produce a greater variety of sounds than we humans can—even two sounds at once.

Male superb lyrebirdMale superb lyrebird

Though other birds can make short, simple calls—usually to sound the alarm, or just to keep in contact with other members of the flock—the songbirds (most of the perching bird group) have extra muscles in their voice boxes. This allows them to produce complex patterns of notes which we call songs. Young songbirds learn songs from their parents and other adults.

Other Q-&-As to explore:

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Where do bees go in winter?

Why do ships float?

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Some songbirds, including the catbirds, thrashers and mockingbirds, can mimic other animals or sounds: frogs, cats, even car alarms. The lyrebird from Australia is said to be the best mimic in the bird world. Not only can it imitate several other birds, but it can also mimic the click of a camera's shutter, a car engine and the loud whirr of a chainsaw.

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