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Songs and Sounds

Vocal Communication in Birds

It's early morning and you're out taking a walk. Every now and then you see birds, and their sounds fill the air. Do you wonder which birds are making which sounds? Or what they are saying to each other?

Listening to birds is a fascinating way to learn about animal communication. And identifying birds by ear is an indispensable birding skill.

Many people enjoy learning the songs of birds in their backyard. Expert birders go even farther, collecting a mental library of bird songs and using sounds to lead them to more sightings. (Legendary birder Ted Parker could identify more than 4,000 species by ear.) Researchers study sounds in detail, trying to understand how--and why--birds developed their effusive communication skills.

Learn more on our bird sounds pages:

Why do birds sing? and Why do they call?

Birds communicate for many reasons, including to

  • impress and attract a mate
  • declare territorial boundaries
  • identify family members
  • announce the presence of a predator
  • convey information about food

Most birds draw on a repertoire, or variety of sounds, to convey these meanings. Typical sounds fall into two main groups: relatively long and elaborate songs, used to impress and attract a mate or declare territorial boundaries; and briefer calls, typically used to identify family members, announce the presence of a predator, or convey information about food.

The relationship between vocalizations and behavior is fluid. A song or call may relate to more than one behavior, and specific behaviors may be connected to more than one kind of vocalization.

What kinds of sounds do birds make?

The complexity of bird vocalizations is immense. This section focuses on passerines, or songbirds, a group of birds that includes species with complex songs. 

How does a bird learn to vocalize?

How does a duckling know how to quack like a duck, or which duck to quack like?

Different species learn in surprisingly different ways: some know their songs at birth, some require tutoring; others learn their songs and then improvise to build their repertoires; and still others, like the mockingbird, copy nearly anything they hear into songs with hundreds or thousands of variations.

Songs and birding

Learning to identify a bird from its song or call is challenging, but it can open up invisible parts of the world around you when you go birding. As with other memorization skills, you can improve with practice. Hone your skills with our selection of tips, patterns and techniques.

Scientists at work

At the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and elsewhere around the world, scientists are studying nearly every aspect of bird song: how birds produce their sounds, what they use them for, and why they choose to sing when they do.

They're also using vocalizations as a tool to learn about bird populations, from searching for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, to counting migrating songbirds in the dark, to cataloging species in remote and unexplored parts of the world. Read about some of the fascinating discoveries here.

Frequently asked questions

Answers to some of our most often asked questions.

Additional resources

Books and other resources for learning more about bird songs.