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Bird Songs

June 17, 2011 | by Bruce Auchly

Songbirds, like this western meadowlark,
produce beautiful melodies to attract mates.

They’re back. Back from southern addresses and zip codes.

Little tufts of feathers flying about, some bright, some drab. They pay us no mind, but their voices give us dividends.

We’re talking about migratory songbirds. Birds like yellow warblers, western meadowlarks and orioles. They return with the spring to sing, mate and produce young.

Birds produce a variety of songs, calls, alarms, flying sounds and other noises.

This time of year, most migratory bird species have a distinctive song or sound that males use regularly to establish a territory and attract females. And while that may be their purpose, their songs give us beautiful melodies that add loveliness to the natural world.

Just a few ounces of feathers and bones, yet songbirds could give lessons to opera singers.

Even mourning doves, which aren’t songbirds, produce a wonderful cooing sound often associated with cool summer mornings.

Birds produce sounds differently from us. We have vocal cords. They don’t.

Our voice box, called a larynx, is in the upper part of our windpipe. It works when our vocal chords are moved by exhaled breath. Birds have a larynx, too, but it doesn’t have vocal chords and apparently has little to do with producing sounds; it just regulates air flow.

Rather a bird’s voice box, called a syrinx, is lower in its windpipe right at the point where two tubes feed into it from the lungs. Of all animals, only birds have a syrinx.

This avian voice box is controlled by specialized muscles, which produce tension when a bird forces air from its lungs. Depending on the number of muscles around the voice box, a bird can produce simple or complex songs.

Pigeons have a single pair of muscles. Birds like crows or catbirds that have a catalog of sounds or mimic other birds have seven to nine pairs of muscles connected to the voice box.

Not all birds are talented songsters. Some can only grunt or hiss.

Sharp-tailed grouse, one of our native prairie grouse, have air sacks in their necks that allow the males to make booming sounds when courting in the spring.

Woodpeckers hammer on whatever makes the loudest noise. Sometimes to the consternation of a homeowner.

Snipe produce an eerie, haunting tone that has been described as a pulsating tremolo. It’s not a call but a sound created by the bird’s outer tail feathers as it dives through the air.

But it seems the sounds we remember most are those musical soliloquies that can frame a beautiful early summer day.

The best place to listen usually is outside of Montana’s larger towns, which are too full of introduced species like house sparrows and starlings.

Depending on the bird species, find a spot with cover or trees near water, no problem this year, and listen quietly.

Before long the air will fill with a symphony of shrill notes, pulsing trills and jingling, metallic melodies. And just like that the day will seem better.