The Captivating Power of Birdsong

Now that spring has arrived, UK bird expert Dominic Couzens writes about what makes birdsong so special.

Have you ever heard anybody say: “I don’t like listening to birdsong?”

True, you might have heard a bleary-eyed person complaining about the birds being too loud at dawn. But once they’ve woken up, it would be a hard-hearted character indeed who didn’t acknowledge the beauty of the sound and appreciate it as a sweet part of life’s soundtrack.

Deep in our psyche, birdsong appeals to us human beings. We don’t just enjoy listening to it; it can also make us feel good. Part of the reason for this is that we can hear it easily. In contrast to some animal sounds, such as ultrasonic bat calls and infrasonic whale communications, the songs of birds hit slap bang in the region of our maximum aural sensitivity.

It also lends us feelings of wellbeing. There is an increasing body of solid research that gives it credence. For example, a study by King’s College in London found that people listening to five minutes of birdsong in a studio experienced lower blood pressure and a sense of calm that continued for up to four hours – that’s the sort of medicine we all need.

Furthermore, psychologists at the University of Surrey confirmed that most people exposed to complex sounds and tuneful birds felt calmer, and that it also made them happier. On a more general level, many studies attest to the overall benefits of being outside in nature, leading to enhanced life satisfaction, self-worth and happiness. Nature is invigorating and refreshing. It is also immediate and independent of our concerns. By being mindful of nature, we can leave aside our troubles, if only for a while.

These results have never made it to the top of national news bulletins but taken at face value they are revolutionary. Just imagine – a genuine tonic for life’s ills, easy for most people to reach, and free of charge! If politicians took this seriously, by giving serious priority to green spaces and biodiversity, what oceans of good could they unleash upon us.In the context of ancient human history, a delight in birdsong also makes sense. Birds sometimes stop vocalising when a predator is about, so perhaps long ago a stint of hearing birdsong imbued our vulnerable ancestors with calm. And in temperate climates with strong seasonal patterns, a swell in this natural phenomenon heralded the arrival of spring, a time of release from the slog of winter and a real threat of starvation, and the beginning of sweet times of abundance. These connections probably go very deep, and their effects appeal to a part of us that is hardwired.

There is, however, a quite extraordinary paradox about our joy in birdsong. And that is the true nature of the function of song among birds themselves. It is natural for a human to enjoy listening to the dawn chorus, for example, and automatically assume that the birds are obtaining the same pleasures as we are by singing, or at least expressing happiness.

But that assumption does not tally with the reality. Birdsong is a biological process, with specific functions. Rather than kill the notion of pleasure or joy, let me explain what those functions are, and you can decide for yourself whether birds are feeling happiness or not.

The main reason birds sing is to defend a patch of their own, known as a territory. While they could protect their “home” visually, just by posturing and being aggressive – and some do – this can be very difficult in a dense woodland, for example. It is much more effective to proclaim ownership by voice, so that you can get the message across to everybody, whether or not you can see them and they you. So, song is primarily a mark of ownership of a patch of ground or air. Interestingly, in temperate areas with obvious seasons, singing is performed almost entirely by males (we are talking about complex vocalisations here, such as the outpourings of Nightingales and the babbling of warblers – simple call-notes, often just a couple of syllables, come from both sexes.) It is their job to defend the territory while the female will, for example, be nest-building or incubating the eggs.
The message sent to other males, the rivals, might sound beautiful to us, but contains an unmistakable element of challenge. It is fundamentally assertive, even aggressive. In this context it is hard to see how the birds actually enjoy singing at each other, hurling avian insults across the airwaves. However, that isn’t the only function of song. There are always two audiences: one is the males, and rivals; the other is the local females, each of which is a potential mate (whether or not a male is already paired). Male birds sing to impress females. In some species of birds, such as Sedge Warblers, mate attraction seems to be more important than territory, and the males stop singing as soon as they acquire a mate. In others, the song is largely territorial. And in most, it is probably a mixture of both.

The notion of attracting a mate by your song certainly allows for an element of “enjoyment”, or at least bullishness at getting the response you want. However, if your singing is not working, as it often doesn’t, they one can only assume an element of desperation. Late in the season, beyond the date most female birds of a certain species lay their eggs, the only birds still singing tend to be males that have yet to pair up. They broadcast this failure to everybody.

This happens to be another reason why it is difficult to attach the description of “joyful” to a bird song. In songbirds, your song is a frighteningly accurate description of your attributes – it is equivalent, no less, to a human dating website, only without the exaggerations and delusions! Aspects of a bird’s song, including vigour, repertoire, persistence and inventiveness, all paint a very public picture of a singer. Choosy females may ignore a male whose song isn’t up to scratch. Birdsong is, therefore, a message of male fitness, which demands a response from rivals and potential mates alike. Song is an aural soundtrack to a biological process with winners and losers.

So, the reality of birdsong is far removed from many people’s perceptions of it. That, though, shouldn’t reduce its delight. It is still glorious; it still lifts our heart and makes us feel better. There is nothing wrong with enjoying it. In fact, the more we know about song, and the drama contained within it, the more astonishing it becomes. To our appreciation, we can add intrigue and wonder.

Dominic Couzens is a bird expert, best-selling nature author, international field trip leader and a regular print columnist. Visit his website here