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Singing from the heart


Songbirds have both an esthetic and a scientific impact on humans, adding beauty and vitality to our environment. Birds can sound like sump-pumps, powersaws, outboard motors or crazed squirrels, or be sublime. Vocalizations may be used in song or calls of danger and other communications.

HOW THEY SING – heart songs:

Humans as well as most animals make sounds by means of a larynx, the vocal apparatus that is high up within the windpipe, when air passes through vocal folds within the larynx which is located at the back of the mouth. Birds, however, vocalize using a completely different structure, a unique mechanism called the syrinx. It is located in the chest, near the heart, when air passes over soft tissue supported by rings of cartilage in the syrinx which is located much farther down in the chest. Each side of the syrinx is independently controlled, allowing birds to produce two unrelated pitches at once, allowing some birds to sing rising and falling notes simultaneously.

Oddly enough, birds also have larynxes – but do not use them for making sounds. This valve is used to separate breathing and eating.

The odds are, when you hear a bird singing it’s a male.And, the majority of female songbirds, in temperate zones, use shorter, simpler calls while the males produce the longer and more complex vocalizations we think of as song. The story is different in the tropics where females commonly sing, and many species engage in duetting.

Just as humans, birds have regional accents and some species develop distinct, area-specific dialects. Such variation in song often arises when populations of the same species are isolated by geographic features: mountains, bodies of water, or stretches of unsuitable habitat. These local dialects are passed on to the next generation of young birds. Therefore, after many generations, the birds from one area can sound quite different from those the next mountain over.

Birds are often up before dawn, singing their hearts out, more intensely than they do at any other time of the day.

Classification of vocalizations:


  • primarily influenced by the sex hormones
  • generally important in reproduction: defending territories & attracting mates


  • generally concerned with coordination of the behavior of a pair, family group, or flock
  • not generally sexual, rather in ‘maintenance’ activities, such as foraging, flocking, & responding to threats of predation
  • usually are acoustically simple and
  • may serve a variety of functions: location/contact/individual recognition

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