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Do skylarks sing to attract insects?

Sent in by Marian Batchelor, Hertfordshire

'Aspiring bird, in thee I find
An emblem of the youthful mind,
Whose earliest voice, like thine is given
To notes of joy that mount to heaven;
But fetter'd by the toils of life,
Its sordid cares, its bitter strife,
It feels its noble efforts vain,
And sadly sinks to earth again.'
 
James Northcote, Fable XXXVI, from Fables, Original and Selected (1833)
 
The song of the skylark - as with other birds - serves different purposes and at different times of year. Song is given principally by the male and is used as a signal to attract a mate; to warn potential rivals of the presence of an occupied territory and also as a signal to deter predators. The skylark features heavily in myth and folklore, but - delightful though the notion is - the song is not used to attract insects.
 
With the possible exception of the nightingale, no birds' song has been more celebrated in music and poetry than that of the skylark. To look at, the skylark is a rather small, streaky and non-descript bird which, in keeping with other visually unprepossessing birds like the nightingale, delivers a remarkably rich and complex song. Unlike the nightingale however, which usually sings from deep within cover, the skylark will deliver its song in flight, making it a conspicuous bird of the British countryside.
 
The skylark is an exceptional mimic, and will often include within its song the calls of other birds which share its favoured habitat. Most common are the calls of waders such as curlew and redshank, but will also include snatches of the songs of linnet and corn bunting. This virtuosity made the skylark a popular cage bird in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, a practice that is thankfully now illegal.
 
The recent fortunes of the skylark have been equally calamitous: between 1972-1996, the UK breeding population declined by 75%, affording it a place on the UK's 'red-list' as a species of the highest conservation concern. To learn more about the reasons for the decline, and what the RSPB is doing to secure the future of these delightful songsters, click on the link to the right. 
 

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