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How Can Birds Sing Without Pausing To Breathe?
Posted on Tuesday, April 22, 2014 by eNature
Olive Warbler
Olive Warbler
© Tony Morris
Brown Thrasher
Brown Thrasher
© Ken Thomas

The birds are singing now, and for good reason: breeding season is in full swing.  And it seems to have arrived earlier this year than most.

It’s A Male Thing
It’s the males, of course, providing the music (females make alarm calls and other vocalizations but almost never songs). And while a male will sing for several reasons, the main function of a song is to inform other birds of the singer’s existence. Specifically, a song informs rival males and potential mates of the bird’s species, and subtle variations to the song identify the bird as an individual. These variations are usually imperceptible to humans, but studies have shown that birds respond differently to the songs of their neighbors than to recordings of birds from other areas.

Studies have also shown that female birds respond more favorably to complex songs—provided the renditions still convey basic identity information. In other words, it pays to show off, and this has led to the evolution of some very elaborate songs. Not surprisingly, birds possess some very sophisticated vocal instruments.

Two-part Harmonies
Bird vocalization comes from an organ called the syrinx, which is located in the breast (thus even headless ducks and chickens can quack or cluck). The syrinx is a branched structure through which air passes, and each branch can be controlled independently. As a result, a bird can produce two distinct sounds at the same time, essentially harmonizing with itself or, in some cases, even adding percussion. The haunting melodies of the thrushes and the overlapping phrases of the Brown Thrasher are great examples.

Another physical attribute that contributes to a bird’s ability to produce complex songs is its specialized breathing apparatus (click here for details). By manipulating air sacs and lungs independently, a bird can inhale and exhale simultaneously. That’s what allows the tiny Winter Wren to produce its long, complicated songs.

Are you hearing lots of bird songs these days?  Our mornings seem noisier than rush-hour in New York City right now!


Click here to listen to songs of the Winter Wren and hundreds of other birds. »



A nice little BirdNote show about this very subject!

I enjoy your e-newsletter! Thanks.

Posted by Ellen Blackstone on 4/15

I love getting your newsletters via email.  I’ve learned so many interesting things and like that I can also download calls (which I use for my phone).  For example, my mother-in-law’s call is “the loon”  grin

Posted by Lynn on 4/15

reminds me of “temples of the syrinx” an old Rush song

Posted by emily on 4/15

The mockingbird never ceases to amaze me. I do not understand how it can crank out tune after tune without ever repeating the same one. They seem to be in sets of three or four repeats each. They also sing all night, at times, when other birds have turned in.

Posted by Gary Cunnane on 4/15

I have always wondered how my amazing Green Singing Finch is able to compose sonatas so effortlessly.  His vocalizations and harmonics are perfect and they last forever.  I’ve asked him how he performs this without having to take a breath without a clear answer from him;however now you’ve given me the answer. Thank you.  I always look forwards to your e-newsletters and consistently learn something valued and new.  Thank you.  Sincerely, Margot

Posted by Margot Van Horn on 4/15

The marvelous design of the bird is definitive evidence to a Creator, not blind, undirected chance.

Posted by Ken on 4/15

very interesting facts about birds. they are almost more efficient in everyway than we are

Posted by carol gelfand on 4/15

I agree with Gary - the Mockingbirds are my new favorite bird since I moved to Virginia from the Midwest.  I love them - their modest attire, the white stripes visible on their wings when they fly and their personalities in general. Both males and females sing and they can imitate anything - other birds songs, frogs, crickets, alarms, you name it; they can duplicate the sound.  In addition, they have their own pleasant songs. If you have a pair of mockingbirds in the vicinity, it sounds as though you have a variety of wild birds in residence. They’ve made this major move in my life easier.

Posted by Pamela d. on 4/16

To Ken:
Faith is not provable and evidence is irrelevant to it.  That’s why it’s faith.

To change the subject:
Babies can nurse and breathe at the same time.  I wonder if the ability came about twice, or if a common ancestor had already developed it for something else.  Anybody know?

Posted by Barbara Bernhardt on 4/16

Ken, natural selection is not blind chance, but what keeps us and other species strong.  Birds evolved from reptiles…this has been proven.  Evidence is irrelevant to those that make claims of proof of something that cannot be proved.

Posted by Douglas Trent on 4/16

Of all the songs I love, the red cardinal is my favorite. My day is made when I hear the familiar call and look into the trees to see the bright red at the top of the tree!

Posted by LEU on 4/24

My post, dated 4/16 is from at least a year ago!  And now you have answered my question in a new article.  Thanks.

“thus even headless ducks and chickens can quack or cluck”—Presumably not for very long!

Posted by Barbara Bernhardt on 4/24

These articles would be more helpful and stir less controversy if they were written with greater sensitivity to the fact that the readership includes people of different views. For instance, the lead in to this article says “birds have evolved the ability to…” By dropping the word ‘evolved’ it would read “birds have the ability to…” What would be lost? Only the controversy.

Posted by Terry L Todd on 4/24

Barbara, infants and many other mammals can drink and breathe at the same time because their vocal tracts are shaped in a way that keeps the esophagus and trachea separate.  As humans grow, the vocal tract bends into more of a right angle, the downside of which is that we can aspirated or choke on our food, but the plus side is that we can produce vowels for human speech.

Posted by Blaine Boogert on 4/24

As to the suggestion that evolution be left out of these discussions, it really is not possible to have a useful discussion in the area of natural history without reference to evolution.  I thought my response to Ken last year was respectful and non-confrontational. But if he was offended I would like to hear why from him.  In my view faith does not need proof. Faith is sui generis, its own thing, separate and apart from evidence or proof.  I did not mean to imply that faith is lesser or in some way untrue.  Just read it as I said it, and don’t add on what you think other people may have meant when they said something similar. I certainly don’t want to diminish anyone’s enjoyment of this forum, that has given me so much pleasure.

Posted by Barbara Bernhardt on 4/24

@Terry L
there is no harm in adding the word “evolution” because that is how birds got the ability to sing the way they do. If you refuse to accept evolution, that is fine but don’t expect the rest of us to accept ancient mythology as fat

Posted by emily on 4/25

Without the word “evolution? in the lead in, you are making a scientific observation. By adding the word, you become an apostle for a specific belief system and are open to the criticism that you are proselytizing for your belief system. There is more than one viable explanation for how birds acquired an ability. The science is observable: they have the ability. Since you cannot observe how they got the ability, you speculate on the basis of your belief system (evolution) and preach that all others should accept your belief. You, too, are operating on faith.

Posted by Terry L Tod on 4/25

Terry:  We do know how they got the ability, and we fill in the blanks as an ongoing project.  The project?  How does the world work?  As to how we know:  Ask the poet who wrote: “Who has seen the wind?”  The theory of evolution is not speculation.  Neither is the Theory of Gravity or the Germ Theory of Disease. Scientists are not apostles nor are they proselytizing.  Those are terms related to religion, and not subject to argument.  They are matters of faith, which needs no proof and to which evidence is irrelevant.  Go practice your religion, but don’t try to abolish science in the name of it.

Posted by Barbara Bernhardt on 4/26
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