to Videolink arrow

Newton logo to print




You're walking in a park when suddenly a bird bursts into song. At a spot where a pile of leaves are flying, you see it-a large, robinlike bird with orange flanks and a white belly. It's a rufus-sided towhee. It's singing a song that sounds like "drink-your-tea-ee-ee-ee-ee." The bird spots you and changes its tune to "dreet, dreet, tow-hee, chee-wink." Is the bird talking to you? What is it saying? Why does a towhee sing this song instead of a robin's song? Why do songbirds sing at all? For the answers, you need to look at both heredity and experience. The songs a bird sings are usually distinctive to its species. Scientists believe a bird is born with a "neurological model" of what its song should sound like. The baby bird learns that song by matching the sounds it hears from its father and male neighbors. Scientists call this theory the auditory template hypothesis. In this theory, song learning begins at about ten days after hatching and continues for about 40 days. Baby birds then practice their songs through the fall and winter. By spring, birds have developed a "crystallized" song. To communicate, birds combine songs and other vocalizations with certain behaviors and outward appearances. Males tend to sing more than females, and they sing more in the spring. Songs help proclaim territory, attract mates, and maintain a pair bond. Some birds like gulls and parrots have no songs. Instead they use complex calls to defend territory and attract mates. Oilbirds and cave swiflets use vocalizations to maneuver in the dark, a process called echolocation. The ruffed grouse and mourning dove make sounds with their wings and woodpeckers with their beaks. Most songbirds have several songs and calls. Birds in the Mimid family (the mockingbird, catbird, and brown thrasher) have very large repertoires. Scientists believe that repertoires increase with age and may indicate to females the health and experience of the male. A songbird uses its syrinx, a vocal organ in its throat, to create a song. A bird's songs can vary in pitch, tone length, number of notes, and special sounds. The two halves of the syrinx can produce songs simultaneously so a bird may sing harmonies with itself, resulting in extremely rich and complex melodies. No human voice can equal this feat.


Examine why anatomy helps determine the sounds we make. When you talk, you use your voice box. A bird makes sounds with a vocal organ called the syrinx. The vibration of thin muscles in the syrinx creates its song. Investigate and compare the vocal organ of a bird with that of a human. Materials
  • sheets of standard paper (8 1/2" x11"), two per student
  • pencils
  • overhead transparency of a drawing of a bird's anatomy, showing trachea, lungs and air sacs, and syrinx
  • overhead transparency of the head, throat, and chest regions of a person's anatomy, showing trachea, bronchus, lungs, and larynx
Note: Make an overhead transparency by photocopying the artwork on this page, cutting out the illustrations, and transferring them to a transparency. Make sure the names of the parts do not appear on the transparency. 1. Give each student two sheets of paper. 2. Show the transparency with an overhead projector. Have everyone draw an outline of the bird's chest, neck, and head. As you explain the different parts of a bird's anatomy that help make its songs, have each student add those parts and label them. 3. Show the transparency of a person's vocal cords and anatomy. Have each student then draw an outline of the person. Explain the different parts of the body that a person uses to speak. As a part is discussed, have each student draw the additional part in its normal location on the outline, labeling each part. 4. Place the two outlines beside one another. Discuss differences and similarities that exist between a bird and a person. What effect would these differences have in determining the sounds a person makes compared to a bird's sound? Questions 1. Besides sound, in what other ways do birds and humans communicate? 2. How is bird behavior different or similar to that of people (hair vs. feathers, gestures vs. wing positions)? Why does your voice become scratchy and deep when you have a sore throat?


  • Elliott, L. (1991) Know your backyard
    bird sounds: Yard, city, and garden birds (eastern/central). Ithaca, NY:
    NatureSound Studio.
  • Freethy, R. (1990) Secrets of bird life: A guide to bird
    biology (rev. ed.). London: Blandford.Stokes, D.W. & Stokes, L.Q. (1983)
    A guide to bird behavior (vol. II & III). Boston: Little, Brown and
  • Walton, R.K. (1994) Songbirds and familiar backyard birds
    (eastern/ western regions). National Audubon Society pocket guides. New York:
    Alfred A. Knopf.
    Additional sources of information

    1. American Backyard Bird
      Society PO Box 10046 Rockville, MD 20849 (301) 309-1431
    2. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology 159 Sapsucker Woods Road Ithaca, NY 14850
      (800) 843-2473
    3. Migratory Bird Center Smithsonian Institution National
      Zoological Park Washington, DC 20008
      Office of Migratory Bird
      Management U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Room 634, Arlington
      Square 4401 N. Fairfax Drive Arlington, VA 22203 (703) 358-1821