Wild About Bird Songs

Have you ever stepped out your front door and just listened? If you live in a city, your local soundscape is probably dominated by the sounds of urban life: traffic, kids playing, the guy three doors down who plays his music too loudly. The world is a noisy place. But if you’re lucky, beneath all of that, you might hear a bird song.

A bright red Northern Cardinal is perched on a tree branch, singing.
Northern Cardinals are familiar backyard songsters in eastern North America. Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I live in a fairly typical western-Canadian suburb. The houses are close together, and the trees are less than 20 years old. When we first moved here, I thought there weren’t any birds, that the neighbourhood was simply too young to support them. It wasn’t until I downloaded the Merlin app and used it to find bird songs, that I realized the birds had been there all along, waiting for me to hear them beneath the thrum of the traffic. 

A grey catbird sings while perching on a tree branch.
Catbirds were one of the birds I discovered with the Merlin app. David Whelan, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Humans have been fascinated by and connected to bird song for thousands of years. The Bosavi people of Papua-New Guinea are surrounded by bird songs from more than 125 species, using the soundscape to identify everything from the time of day to which fruits are in season. Traditional Indigenous stories tell of the connection between bird song and the way we sing as people. In Oneida culture, people shared the gift of song with birds, while the Kumeyaay people speak of birds giving humans the ability to sing. 

In western-European culture, scientists have studied bird song as far back as Aristotle. Today, bioacoustics is a growing field of research that documents and examines changes in the natural world through natural sounds emitted by birds, mammals, insects, and even plants. By recording the natural environment we can hear changes in biodiversity over time as species composition changes.

A Common Firecrest, a small brown bird, sings while hiding in a conifer tree.
Many small birds have big songs. Common Firecrest by Noel Feans, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Many animals—not just birds—use sound to communicate. From the howl of a wolf to the deep echoes of whales, sound is a natural way for all species to communicate over long distances. And yet, there is something about bird song that we feel a connection to. 

Perhaps it’s the connection between bird song and our own language. Not only does bird song use similar structures to our own musical compositions, birds use syntax in their songs. That is, they can rearrange elements of their songs in the same way we use words in a sentence. 

A small brown house wren sings while perched on a tree branch.
House wrens are often heard before they’re seen. Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As with our own language, birds within the same species can have different dialects. This variation in dialect emerges when birds make mistakes in learning their songs from adult birds. Over time, these mistakes are integrated into the local population and a new dialect is created. However, some bird populations are extremely resistant to changes in their songs. Eastern double-collared sunbirds have been singing the same song for hundreds of thousands of years. 

A brown bird with a iridescent green head and orange chest sits amid green foliage.
The Eastern double-collared sunbird has sung the same song for hundreds of thousands of years. Nigel Voaden, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Although there is some evidence that birds may sing for pleasure, birds sing most often to stake their claim on their territory and to attract mates, birds may also adapt their songs in response to environmental pressures. In urban environments, birds may sing more frequently at a higher pitch and may adopt new dialects in order to be heard in a busy soundscape. These changes can happen quickly, in the early days of the pandemic, bird songs changed as the noise of city traffic was diminished. 

An American Robin, a grey bird with a black head and orange chest perces on a branch, singing.
American Robin by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We may not understand the intricacies of the robin singing in our backyard, but it brings us joy nonetheless. And there’s increasing evidence that listening to birds can improve our mental health by reducing anxiety and lowering stress. So the next time you step outside, stop for a second and listen. It will make your day better in more ways than you realize.