Ecoweekend 2017: Why do birds sing?

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By Angelika Nelson

Have you ever thought of learning a second language? Do you want to understand your common garden birds? Bird song is like a language that birds use to communicate with each other, mostly within their species but also across species, and even different taxa. Think of a Carolina Chickadee in your garden loudly scolding your neighbor’s cat when it approaches the bird feeder.

To produce the cacophony of sounds that has inspired and awed humans for centuries, including Shakespeare (Was it the “the nightingale or the lark that pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.”, Romeo & Juliet), birds have a special organ, the syrinx. To perfect their skills, songbirds have to go through stages of song learning just like a human infant has to learn our language. Many species are restricted in their learning ability to the first few months in life and will draw from this early repertoire throughout their lives. But there are exceptions: Many birds that mimic sounds of others (even including humans) can learn to produce new sounds throughout life.

This leaves us with the question of why birds sing. Does it help them to defend a territory? Do they sing to attract a mate? Find out at a workshop and field trip at Ecoweekend 2017. We will talk about what research has revealed about songbirds, how we can best approach using bird song to help us recognize and identify bird species, and we will put some of the newly-learned skills to use during a field trip. Just like any other language it takes years of practice to perfect your skills in identifying birds by their sounds. Get started on Saturday, May 6.