Have you listened to the birds singing? Within the past month, our songbirds have unleashed their breeding songs with gusto.
Here’s a list of the species that I heard last week from my back deck between 7 and 7:07 a.m. As well as the American Robin, which begins its song at the break of dawn, I heard a Bald Eagle, Song Sparrow, Bewick Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Spotted Towhee, House Finch, Rufous Hummingbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Northern Flicker, European Starling and Glaucous-winged Gull.
As I write this, a male Red-breasted Sapsucker pounds on the metal cover of our courtyard wall. It’s discovered an instrument that will carry his message out over the garden to impress any female sapsuckers within a half-mile radius.
The forest, too, is alive with a different set of birdsong. Chickadees have added a soft, two-toned phee, bee, bee breeding song to their year-round chick-a-dee, dee, dee call. Nuthatches intone their toy tinhorn-sounding yank, yank.
However, the diva of the woods is the tiny, brown Winter Wren, which bursts forth with a complex, bubbling 100-note song. Later this spring in those same woods, the Pacific Slope Flycatcher will utter its song, a simple one-noted peeoweet.
Besides their spring breeding songs, birds also communicate with alarm calls, pair and flock communication notes, squeaks, picks and tweets. They do that year-round, but now through June, the grand overture of spring singing enlivens our gardens and filters through our forests.
The best time to hear the remarkable cacophony of dozens of songs is shortly after dawn through about 9 a.m. After that, most birds stop singing until they pick up with an evening serenade.
Yet some birds sing all day long. Here on Whidbey, Song Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows belt out their spring songs from 1,500 to 3,000 times between sunup and sundown. That’s dedication!
Why do birds sing?
The simple answer is sex and real estate.
Male songbirds sing to attract a mate. It’s the bird equivalent of advertising “single feathered male seeks seasonal female companion.”
The bird shows off his prowess through song. Studies have shown that often the loudest male attracts the mate.
Male songbirds also sing to establish a territory for the spring breeding season. He is announcing to other males of his same species to stay away. “Hey, Dude, this is my space!” A territory must include healthy habitat with food, water and shelter.
Sex and real estate explain why birds sing. Yet, it doesn’t explain why some birds sing so beautifully. For example, why does a Winter Wren entertain with a complex, bubbling 100-note song, when a much shorter song seemingly would accomplish the tasks of finding a mate and establishing territory?
Also, there are risks involved.
It takes a slightly heavier brain to remember and repeat a complex song, thus slowing down those songsters. Plus every one of those 1,500 songs belted out daily announces the bird’s presence to potential predators.
Bird songs have been carefully examined to parse out the sections that say, “Sweetheart, I’m available.” As well as the parts that announce, “Dude, you’re invading my space.” Many songs also include beautiful notes, that don’t seem to add a practical function.
Many of us have heard a mocking bird sing all day, with no other birds — male or female — around to listen. Why should it bother to sing so beautifully?
Charles Darwin suggested that birds “have strong affections, acute perception and a taste for the beautiful.” Particularly the phrase “a taste for the beautiful” makes some ornithologists squirm behind their binoculars. It suggests that birds sing out of a sheer enjoyment of creating beauty. These scientists would rather explain birdsong with theories about complex competition among males and the need for each species to evolve a very specific song.
Poets and theologians appear to have no trouble with the lack of scientific understanding as to why birds sing beautifully.
The poet Hafiz wrote:
Comes and sits on a crystal rim
And from my forest cave I
So I run to the edge of existence
And join my soul in love.
Birdsong brings relief
to my longing.
I am just as ecstatic as they are,
But with nothing to say!
Please universal soul, practice
Some song, or something, through me!
Where do I stand? Although I receive inspiration, joy and a sense of deep connection to the natural world when I stop to listen to birdsong, I am skeptical of the human-centered view that birds sing for our benefit, as some suggest.
Or that birds have a sense of the beautiful in the way we do.
I expect that someday scientists will be able to explain why birds sing so beautifully.
In the meantime, I relish in the exquisite beauty and mystery of birdsong. And I count myself very lucky to be an appreciative audience to the symphony of nature that surrounds us here on Whidbey.