Our warden intern Andy is fantastic with birdsong, here he discusses a bit of the science behind the song:
I have no doubt that the meliflous warblings of our finer song birds share mathematical relationships with the palette of tones in our own music. Our appreciation of music probably evolved as a means of empathising with the tones found in speech, psychologists refer to this as “prosidy”. These signal our emotional status and intent, which then drive behaviour; in birds song exerts a strong influence on mate choice. Although we can only speculate on the emotional lives of other species it seems likely that birds also appreciate an accomplished singer.
Chaffinch, Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
Songs differ from other bird vocalisations in their purpose; to mark a territory and to attract a mate. Male birds sing and associated parts of their brains enlarge during the breeding season.
Songs vary from instinctive repetitions to improvised melodies often with mimicry, in some cases even mimicking the sounds of foreign birds! Some of those repetitive songs, such as chaffinch and willow warbler, are the easiest to learn first, even if they don't directly repeat themselves they do have subtler trends in tone and structure that can be learnt.
Wren, Paul Chesterfield (rspb-images.com)
The tiny wren’s enormous voice carries a song of manic speed and complexity and yet each wren sings, without deviation, from the same hymn sheet. This song is always the same and any maverick tendencies appear to have been weeded out by female preference.
In many other species females prefer males who sing a rich variety of songs. A wide repertoir may suggest that a bird has lived a long time and/or held territories in good habitat with plenty of food and where many birds live close enough to share musical influences. Age and ability to hold a good territory imply good breeding. It has been suggested that if a bird can sound like several birds then some males leave an area thinking it is more full with competitors than it is!
Blackbird, Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
Scientists have played bird songs to birds and learned that singing over a neighbour is an act of aggression that causes conflict and polite pause is an aquiescence to a neighbour’s territorial demands. After borders have been established, by threat or conflict, Blackbirds are well-mannered, singing phrases of predictably consistent length and awaiting a reply!
By late summer the motivation for song will have left nearly all of our birds so get out and enjoy the spectacle while you can!
Descriptions in bird books help us descriminate between similar songs or recall what we have heard but should be used alongside free recordings or phone apps. There is also a superb free online training site.