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It’s in your nature: Why do birds sing?

I woke rather early as usual last week an hour and a half before sunrise with the outside temperature slightly below freezing and at least 15 inches of snow still covering the yard. It was Feb. 23. As the morning sky slowly brightened, I stood on the deck and noticed something different. The morning was no longer silent.

In the next 15 minutes I identified eight different bird species “tuning up,” some maybe for the first time this spring. They included the house finch, cardinal, bluebird, song sparrow, mourning dove, Carolina wren, tufted titmouse and a mockingbird.

Male birds almost exclusively do the singing, and it isn’t meant for our benefit. Males usually have brighter, more colorful plumages than their counterparts, but all males of the same species are similarly feathered. So, singing is one of the chief methods they use to attract mates.

The birds I heard singing that morning have been “hanging around” my yard for most of this winter, but why did they begin piping up today?

Lengthening days trigger a hormone increase in males, and their singing is a prep for the breeding season. The male is hoping to “show off” enough to prove to his potential mate that he is the fittest and he’s hoping to find the fittest mate. His singing isn’t only for her. A male often finds a visible perch, often high in a tree or shrub, and sings to alert potential male interlopers that he has already claimed this territory.

For most species in the Times News region, the singing will continue well into the nesting season. (probably until mid-July or so) Once August arrives, the mornings seem eerily quiet as the males’ hormones decrease and most singing stops.

In the next few weeks robins will again be gracing our lawns and pastures, while red-winged blackbirds will be “singing their heads off” sitting on a sapling, fence post, or atop one of last year’s cattail stalks. They will all be claiming a territory. Remember, in most species the male birds arrive in the nesting area about two weeks before the females.

Once May arrives, take a walk to or in a woodlot in the early morning and be prepared for a chorus of birds. There may be so many birds singing that you will find it hard to focus on a certain one. All birds of a species sing a very similar song. A house wren in Penn Forest Township sings the same song as a house wren in Southern Ohio. A cardinal in your hedge row sings the same song as a cardinal in Buffalo, New York.

Young birds in their first four or five weeks in the nest learn to sing from listening to their “dad.” (a study was done in Germany where nestlings were not exposed to their “dads” singing and they were not able sing their telltale song. Birding buddies Dave, Rich and I have learned to identify and then locate a specific bird just by their distinctive song. If you have a strong interest, apps are available to purchase with each species song or search for them on your laptop.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: The red-eyed vireo, a rather common songbird in our region, holds the record for singing ____ songs in a day. A. 20,000, B. 5,000, C. 2,000, D. 500.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: A cross-section of a tree trunk will reveal five layers. The dead parts of a mature tree trunk are the heartwood (the center of a tree) and the outer bark.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

Rather atypical for most birds, I have heard Carolina wrens singing on sunny, but, cold January mornings. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Tireless singers, red-eyed vireos sing from sunrise to nearly sunset each summer day.
Head feathers raised mohawk-like, a male swamp sparrow sings from a conspicuous perch, “doing his best” to attract a mate.
On your May morning walk, listen for wood thrushes singing their distinctive, flutelike songs.