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Can songbirds really sing?

By Martha R. Fehl

American Robin - Photo Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife
American Robin - Photo Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife

The last time you were in the woods you may have taken a rest, sat down beside a tree and just listened to the chorus of birds singing.

That might make you wonder if, when birds sing in spring, their songs could be classified as music?

Birds such as crows and vultures only make grunts, but some biologists explain how birds are physically equipped to sing.

And there’s something else. Bird songs are different than shorter sounds known as bird calls.

Birds' music, researchers note, lies close to the counterparts of pitch notes that people use for a musical scale. So is that a bird song you’re hearing? Sounds like it!

Song Sparrow - Photo Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Song Sparrow - Photo Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Humans possess a larynx, whereas birds have a syrinx, a membranous structure at the lower end of the trachea. Canary notes or pulses are synchronous with chest movements produced by shallow breaths.

The wood thrush, a native of Georgia, can conform to the familiar diatonic scale (with seven notes), while the hermit thrush, which winters in Georgia, may sing with the pentatonic scale (with five notes), according to research.

Some species may even compose in sonata form. The Georgia native song sparrow, for example, "belts out one of its themes, equivalent to a sonata's opening exposition, then fiddles with it much the same way a non-feathered composer develops a theme," according to a  report in Science News.

Ornithologists Georgann Schmalz of Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta and Emily Jo Williams of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources lead a series of birding book camps to help birders recognize birds by their song.

Here are some examples of bird songs:

Cornmon yellowthroat: "witchety, witchety, witchety."

Painted bunting: a cheery whistle, no mnemonic.

Black and white warbler; "Wheeze, wheezy, wheezy," sounds like a squeaky metal wheel.

Yellow warbler: sweet, sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet."

Tufted titmouse: peter, peter, peter, peter."

Back To YBO Home Page Robin: "Cheer up, cheerily, cheerily."

White-throated sparrow: poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody."

You can hear actual bird songs online. Here’s a good website to visit at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

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