Something Wild: How Birds Learn to Sing

Apr 29, 2016

Is there a song that has stuck with you for years?  Maybe a tune your parents sang to you as a child, the notes imprinted on your mind and became a part of your being.  As Chris and Dave shared the melodies imparted to themselves, the conversation turned (as it often does) to birds.  Is our musical learning similar to that of our avian neighbors?


Our connection to music is wrapped up in emotion.  While we might interpret birdsong as music, what we're actually hearing is language. Imagine you're a white-throated sparrow nestling. You're born with your eyes closed, pink and featherless, and hungry. Your mother flies into the nest with a mouth full of caterpillars. You and your siblings are sort of responsive but you don't really know what's happening. Then your mother starts making small, soft chirps and clucks, and that's when you realize - breakfast! In fact, the first thing you hear (as a sparrow) is not song, but these chirps and clucks that are only audible within a few feet. They prompt you and your siblings to open your mouths and jostle to compete for food. These specific parent to offspring notes are designed to stimulate begging behavior.  As the chicks grow they continue to listen to the adults to learn to make their own territorial calls.

"When raised by a tutor, in this case a junco, the sparrow learned to sing the junco's song."

A white-throated sparrow will learn its song from its parents.  But what if a white-throated sparrow was raised by a junco?  Would it speak junco?  The short answer is yes.  But the sparrow is one of a large group of birds that requires learning to perfect its song.  Scientists tested this by raising a nestling in isolation.  The song it sang was garbage, but when raised by a tutor - a junco, for instance - the sparrow learned the junco song.  This isn't true for all birds.  There is another group where singing is innate.  Everything they need to sing their songs is contained in their genetic heritage.

Credit Brian Henderson via Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/dfXxAc)

This time of year, we mostly hear territorial birdsong, especially in the morning when the birds are most boisterous.  It's called "the dawn chorus" and it's largely composed of male voices.  Most females of the species are listening to multiple singers and are trying to figure out who's got what it takes.  They can tell the Mick Jaggers from the Milli Vanillis.  Singing is one of many ways females judge the quality of their mates, which is why mastering those songs is rather important.  So don't forget to practice!