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Why do birds sing in the morning?

Sent in by Tom Wang, USA

Birds use song and calls to communicate with other birds for a multitude of reasons.

Perching birds, or 'songbirds' (passerines) account for nearly half the world’s 9,600 bird species. While singing behaviour varies among them, most takes place during the breeding season generally more in the early morning (and to a lesser extent, late afternoon). This is when they are settled in their territory and are marking their presence to others in the area.

There is also a school of thought that says birds sing most in the mornings because sound carries further, linked to the lack of general noise and the density of the air at that time.

The dawn chorus may can dip in intensity during the breeding season, mainly during the short mating periods and again when the young are being cared for. There simply isn’t enough time in the day to defend/mark their patch and tend to the young! In the UK during high summer, the dawn chorus starts as early as 4am. The first birds to stir are usually blackbirds, robins and wrens. Singing then pretty much stops altogether when the breeding season is over.

More on songs and calls

For the most part, it is the males that sing - a consistently repeated pattern of tones, mostly from an elevated or conspicuous spot within their territory or breeding area. Some birds, such as buntings and skylarks, sing on the wing. While birds usually do not sing around their nests, a few sing a quiet 'whisper song' that can be heard only within a few yards. For a few species, the female also occasionally breaks into song such as robins, tawny owls, dotterels and red-necked phalaropes.

As a basic rule, songs are generally long and complex whereas calls are short and simple. Birds sing from their syrinx, a kind of double voice box at the bottom of their windpipe. Two sets of membranes and muscles where the windpipe branches into the lungs vibrate at high frequencies as air is exhaled. In fact, while singing, a bird can alternate exhaling between its two lungs and thereby sing in harmony with itself.

The songs of birds are learned, not inherited. Within a couple of months, fledglings develop a 'subsong' that matures into an adult primary song in around a year or so as they reach breeding maturity. From this learnt behaviour, a number of species have a varying number of songs and calls. House sparrows have just one simple song; song thrushes and nightingales by comparison have several different varieties of song. Other species are expert’s at mimicry and will copy other sounds ranging from other birds to mechanised sounds that they may encounter. Starlings are well known for this and species such as the jay are known to mimic birds of prey such as buzzards to scare off intruders to their territory.

A number of RSPB local groups and reserves will be hosting dawn chorus walks during the spring and summer 2009. Find out more information on events near you

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