Why Do Birds Sing?

Jackie Carroll

I love to lie in bed early on a spring morning and listen to the birds as they sing in the rising sun. After several mornings of careful listening, you can pick out the songs of neighborhood residents and detect new arrivals as they return from winters spent in warmer climates. Listening to bird songs is a great way to start the day, and I hope that birds get as much joy from singing as I get from listening.

What’s in a Song?

Indigo Bunting

Not all birds are songbirds. Loons, ducks, geese, hawks, herons and others seem to have their vocalizations encoded into their genes, and are born knowing how to do it. We refer to these vocalizations as “calls” rather than “songs.” These birds depend on rituals and dances to attract a mate. Songbirds, on the other hand, must learn their song.

A male songbird sings all day long as he tries to attract a mate. Once he manage to convince the girl of his dreams to settle down with him, he doesn’t sing quite as much, but still sings to let others know he’s there. He also hopes for the occasional casual affair. DNA testing shows that half or more of the chicks in a nest don’t belong to the man of the nest, indicating that affairs are frequent and maybe not quite so casual.

As the male bird continues his singing after the young are hatched he begins teaching them his song. He teaches not only the song of his species, but the local dialect as well. Just as New Yorkers know a visitor from Tennessee is not local to the area even though they speak the same language, female birds know when a male is an outsider. A bird with a slightly different song also has a slightly different genetic heritage, and female birds tune in to this difference, preferring to carry on the local genes.

Red-Winged Blackbird

It’s possible that variations in bird species developed in part due to different song dialects. Geographically isolated birds of the same species undergo their own mutations over time, and natural selection causes their gene pool to be a bit different from their counterparts in other areas. In this way, different dialect of their song prevents the genes from mixing.

Dialect is important, but not the only thing a female bird can learn from a male’s song. Females want a mature mate who has been around long enough to prove that he can survive the trials of being a bird. It takes more than a season to learn to sing the song well and eradicate all traces of baby-babble. Females listen for a song that is strong, steady, and show stamina.

She also wants a bird that is high in the pecking order. Do other males defer to him, or do they sing over him? After all, this is the bird she will depend on to defend her family.

The Mnemonics of Birdsong

Ask any toddler, and he can tell you what an owl or a duck says. These are mnemonics, and once learned they help us to remember and recognize songs in the wild. Although birdsongs are more complicated than the simple calls of owls and ducks, they can still be remembered and recognized with the aid of mnemonics. It’s a pleasure to learn to recognize bird songs and see how many songs you can recognize before you go to the window to see if you can locate the singer.

As an example of songbird mnemonics, consider the two species of chickadee:

  • A black-capped chickadee uses the warning call goes “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee”–my local guys give up to 8 dees. The “chick-a” is very quick and soft, almost whispered compared to the dees. Their morning song goes “Hey-sweetie” With the “Hey” on a slightly higher pitch.
  • A Carolina chickadee gives a similar warning call to the black-capped chickadee, but his song is quite different. You will hear many variations of “fee-bee-fee-bay” and “fee-bee-bee-fee,” with a note pattern of high-low-high-low.
  • You don’t have to learn to identify the singer to enjoy the song, but knowing more about the singer and his choice of song enhances the pleasure of listening. Once you can identify a few of your neighborhood singers, what was once background noise becomes a rich tapestry of sound.

Bayberries

Jackie Carroll

BayberryA bayberry shrub’s glossy, olive green foliage and neat, mounded shape looks good in the garden all summer long, but the birds really take note in fall and winter when the foliage turns bronze and the branches of the female plants are loaded with clusters of silvery gray berries. Bayberries are a preferred winter food for chickadees, titmice, vireos, red-bellied woodpeckers and catbirds. Tree swallows relish the berries as a special treat after eating insects all summer, and consume large quantities of them as they migrate south. The fruit they leave behind remains on the shrub until early spring when returning yellow-rumped warblers, bluebirds and orioles strip them off. Summer foliage provides refuge for summer songbirds.

Plant Information for Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)

Lifecycle: Deciduous shrub. Female plants need a male plant nearby in order to produce fruit.

Zone: 3 to 7

Native Range: Eastern North America

Height: 5 to 10 feet

Spread: 5 to 10 feet

Flowers: Bayberry shrubs bloom in spring. The flowers are not showy. Female flowers are yellow and male flowers are yellowish-green.

Exposure: Full sun to partial shade

Soil Moisture: Dry to medium

Fruit: Many birds enjoy the showy fall fruit that persists on the shrub throughout winter. The berries are coated with an aromatic, waxy substance that is used to make bayberry candles and soaps

Maintenance: Low

Attracting Wood Warblers to Your Garden

 

Pine WarblerIn spring and fall, more than 50 species of wood warblers migrate together in mixed flocks. Convincing these tiny beauties to stop off in your backyard isn’t difficult, and they’ll add color and a wide range of sound to your landscape. Well before the sun is up you’ll enjoy the rich tapestry of their morning chorus, followed by as many as 11 or 12 songs that change throughout the day.

Most warblers are yellow or greenish brown, and they may look alike to you at first as they move quickly from place to place, never sitting still very long. Actually, each species has distinct and often striking markings that are easy to spot, but you may need a pair of binoculars. WARNING: keeping a journal of your warbler sightings can become an obsession!

Yellow WarblerThe name “Warbler” leads you to believe that these birds are all extraordinary singers, but the truth is that their high-pitched trills and short chirps are often more of a background for more accomplished singers than a stand-alone song. Even though they are no virtuosos, you’ll soon learn to distinguish their chirps and trills.

Attracting Warblers to Your Garden
Warblers don’t like to be disturbed, so choose an area where you won’t be spending much time and plants that don’t need a lot of attention. They like lots of cover where they can stay out of sight at a height of about 5 to 8 feet. It’s not the type plants so much as the amount of cover they provide that counts.

Some suggested plants:

  • Bayberries – You’ll need a male pollinator and a female to produce berries. Bayberry will also attract thrushes and waxwings.
  • Goldenrod – These shrubs provide cover and attract the insects that a warbler needs. You might even find common yellowthroats nesting in goldenrod.
  • Hibiscus – Hibiscus is another favorite nesting shrub for common yellowthroats.
  • Red Raspberry – Some warblers will eat the fruit, but it’s the insects around the fruit that the warblers really like. Bushy canes also provide cover.
  • Pussy Willows – Warblers will use the fluff as nesting material, and they find plenty of insects around the catkins.

Orange-Crowned WarblerOf course it goes without saying that you should never use insecticides when you are trying to attract warblers, but I’m going to say it anyway. Warblers eat hundreds of insects a day to support their hyperactive lifestyle. They will not stop by for a visit unless your yard is alive with insects.

Since their diet consists almost entirely of insects, they aren’t often attracted to feeders, but there are a few exceptions. Mealworms, which you can purchased at pet stores and bait shops, are popular with some warblers, but they have to learn to look for them at feeders. Suet will attract yellow-rumped warblers and a few other species. Orange-crowned warblers will sip from nectar feeders.

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