The Power of Birdsong

By Sathvika Krishnan

Birdsong has inspired many artists, poets and composers from different backgrounds over the years. Great writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare marvelled at sounds of birds and incorporated the songs in their literature. From classic-romantic Beethoven to 20th century Messiaen to modern jazz musician Rothenberg, either direct or indirect references to the melodious models of birdsong feature greatly across many genres of music. Birdsongs are said to be among the most beautiful, complex sounds produced in the natural world. Birds produce sound using a uniquely avian vocal organ called the syrinx, which is located at the top of the bronchi in the lungs. Some birds with particularly complex syringeal muscles are able to produce two harmonically distinct sounds simultaneously, like the Wood Thrush. Each species has a unique set of calls and songs, known as its repertoire, and some birds have a particularly vast selection of sounds. The Brown Thrasher, for example, can sing 2000 song variations and can switch sound production back and forth from one side of the syrinx to the other, even within a single syllable! Bird vocalisations are heavily involved in courtship displays, nesting care and interspecies interaction (the dawn chorus). However, birdsong is far more than just a means of communication.

Bird bioacoustics is an active field of scientific research using bird vocalizations to gather information about habitats. By measuring birdsong, researchers can use birdsong as an indicator to assess the health of ecosystems and can monitor species populations. Birds play ecologically crucial roles in the balance of food webs and it is imperative that their populations are maintained. Birdsong also has notably positive effects on humans. Listening to birdsong can improve our mood and boost our mental health significantly. This ‘natural high’ helps us to recover from stress and refocus our attention. This is because birdsong is stochastic; this means that it is made up of seemingly random sounds with no audible, repeating pattern to focus on. Evolutionarily, it is believed that birdsong was a signal of safety and thus stimulates us cognitively. The ecological and psychological benefits of birdsong are unquestionable but there is a serious problem.

Studies show that British birdlife is in trouble. The combined actions of pesticides, farming intensification and habitat change, as well as other factors, has caused species populations to plummet drastically. The glorious song of the nightingale, one of the world’s most celebrated passerines (songbirds), is now a rarity as its population has crashed by more than 90%. With our skies emptier and woodlands quieter, we need to act quickly to reverse this loss in biodiversity. So, what can you do to help support U.K. birds?

1) You could start by feeding garden birds on your windowsill, balcony or garden. This will help attract birds locally.

2) Avoiding chemical pesticides can help protect the insects that are essential to the survival of many bird species.

3) If you have a pet cat, try and keep your feline friend inside as cats are notorious for killing birds.

4) Enjoy the birdsong. Through listening and learning, you will soon be able to identify your avian garden visitors by sound and you can become a ‘citizen scientist’!

As renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough says, “What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?”

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