Birds Singing for Us

The reasons birds sing is to declare or defend a territory and to attract a mate as part of courtship. They don’t sing because they are happy, although some philosopher and nature guru types might disaagree. Singing attracts attention, which is fine if you want to declare that you are the owner of a particular piece of property or attract a female. Singing also lets predators know where you are, but it’s a tradeoff – a bird has to put itself in a little danger in order to raise a family. A bird singing for fun just exposes itself to predators for a little self-indulgence but to no advantage. Evolution doesn’t work that way. Unless the behavior is beneficial, it won’t continue to exist; natural selection will see to that.

If a bird sings because it is happy, how come that mainly happens around the mating season and not the rest of the year? And why is it that mainly males sing? Wouldn’t the females sing as well? It’s nice to think that some attractive bird singing a gorgeous song from a treetop on a bright, cheery day is happy, it just ain’t so. He’s just doing what he needs to do to propagate his species. But he makes us happy.

A new piece of research from a California Polytechnic State University team reports that hikers exposed to birdsongs reported higher levels of psychological restorative efforts (they became more relaxed) compared to those that did not hear the birdsongs. The researchers played recordings of a bird chorus to hikers on one trail and not to hikers on another. The hikers hearing the recorded birdsongs reported having a more calming experience, supporting previous research demonstrating the link between biodiversity and a perceived sense of well-being.

The study reports “Because an emotional affinity towards nature has been shown to motivate conservation-oriented behaviors managing noise in parks has the potential to create a feedback loop where increased biodiversity improves visitors’ experiences, improves their well-being, and increases their emotional affinity towards nature, thereby motivating actions that will further benefit biodiversity. Further supporting this idea, other researchers found that birdwatching is linked to pro-environmental behaviors (recycling, donating to environmental causes, etc.) both directly and indirectly by strengthening participants’ attachment to a place. Place attachment, or the positive emotional connection that a person has with a particular environment, is influenced by a variety of factors, which in a natural setting can include things such as scenery, peacefulness or wildlife. This study demonstrates the importance of natural sounds to having positive experiences in nature, which may further motivate pro-conservation behaviors. As the world’s population grows and natural areas become increasingly fragmented and impacted by noise, preserving acoustic resources will be important for both biodiversity and human well-being.”

Not all birds produce the same results. Those that hoot, squawk, or scream are unhelpful, although perceptions vary between individuals. But a recent study in the U.S. shows that we typically spend 87% of our time inside a building and 6% in an automobile, so I would think we’d appreciate any kind of bird noise when we do get outside.

Surinam bird singing contests

7 thoughts on “Birds Singing for Us

  1. I have to question the logic of narrowly believing that birds only sing to declare or defend a territory.
    For example, what would be the evolutionary advantage of a veery thrush’s enchanting (to humans) flutelike song spiraling down at eventide? Add to that the veery’s amazing ability to sing two notes at once, and one can easily deduce a Designer appealing to the humans he created and specially “wired” to appreciate music.

    1. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that birds sing to declare or defend territory and/or as part of a courtship ritual. Even at eventide. Many birds have the ability to sing two notes at once or do other amazing voice tricks, but that doesn’t count as “evidence” for a designer. It’s evidence for the evolutionary process.

      1. I hear you, but can you explain how the ability of a bird to sing anything more musical than a few simple territorial declaration notes evidence for the evolutionary process?
        How does it improve a bird’s reproductive ability?

      2. I hear you, but can you explain how the ability of a bird to sing anything more musical than a few simple territorial declaration notes is evidence for the evolutionary process?
        You’ll probably mention courtship advantage, but aren’t you assuming the female would have had to have taken a Music Appreciation class? 😉

        1. The process is specifically called “sexual selection.” Females choose males (rarely the other way around) on the basis of color, behavior, nest construction, quality of territory, and/or song/sound. About 50 percent of birds are songbirds and many of them don’t have songs we humans would consider attractive. But any sound a male bird makes, like the bill clapping of storks, or song has to be attractive to a female or he won’t mate and reproduce. The female doesn’t have to have any appreciation for music, just for the sound. Often it’s a combination of things – a Yellow-headed Blackbird, for example, sings from his marsh territory. If the female likes the territory and the song, she chooses him. Any male that has a slight advantage – a slightly louder or more complex song or a better territory- is the winner. What we perceive as musical is not the standard by which a female bird chooses her mate. If that were the case, Ravens, Crows, and Magpies wouldn’t be reproducing. So songs can become quite complex,as can nests, behavior, and color. Evolutionary progress is like compound interest in a bank; a little money grows little by little but over a great expanse of time, a fortune comes to be.

  2. Dr. Lederer, you had to know you were wading in! Your position is impossible to refute, because we can’t ask a bird if it’s happy. But the behavioralist position would also have us believe that dogs don’t love us, or in fact that we don’t love each other. I think a middle ground is better. Yes, a dog has an evolutionarily derived inclination to manipulate humans to give it food and shelter. Skinner would say that’s it, there’s nothing more. But how was he sure the dog wasn’t enjoying the process? In fact, couldn’t it be that enjoyment is how evolution speaks to us? My guess is that cardinals go to the top of a tall tree and sing because it feels good to do so. They have what we would call a “gut feeling” that it’s the thing to do, and following our drives feels good. I don’t know what happiness is like for a bird, but whatever it is, I think they’re feeling it when they sing, just as any other animal feels good when it follows its drives.

    1. I’d not going to argue your point about dogs but it’s clear that the main reasons birds sing have to do with territory establishment and defense and an important part of the courtship process. If birds sing for enjoyment, why is it that mainly males of a species sing, not females or immature birds? Why is it that most species do not sing during the non-breeding times of the year? You would expect both male and female birds to sing all year if they did it for enjoyment. I’m not saying that birds can’t be “happy” – I don’t know what their emotions are – but to equate singing with happiness is just not justified. And what about birds that make other sounds that we wouldn’t consider musical? Are they expressing happiness as well?
      Nope, Cardinals go to the top of a tree to declare their dominion, to intimidate other males, and hopefully attract a female. Passing on their genes to the next generation is the main drive, not happiness.

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