Common Chords

Appreciating the beauty of everyday birdsong

by Shannon Luepold

Have you heard birds singing today? You probably have, though you may not have even realized it. Even in crowded urban habitats, birds accompany our everyday lives with their songs, but we often are so used to them or so busy we don’t even hear them anymore. When you listen closely, you can recognize the unique voices of the blackbird, the great tit and the chaffinch, each with his own signature style (usually it is the males who sing). For scientists like me who study birdsong, having a visual representation of the sounds helps to better understand and quantify what the birds are actually doing when they are singing, and what this could reveal about them. For example, we might wonder, how fast is that trill in the robin’s song? By looking at a spectrogram of the song, we can calculate exactly how many notes he sings per second during a trill, as well as the difference in frequency between his highest and lowest notes. These as well as other aspects of birdsong that can be measured on spectrograms may encode important information about the health and vigor of the singer. In many species, comparisons of different aspects of singing performance between individuals have been found to correlate with survival or successful reproduction. Thus, in addition to being beautiful, these songs can also give valuable insight into the physical health of the performer. In addition to helping scientists measure and quantify birdsong in all its complexity, spectrograms can also help casual birdwatchers learn to recognize the unique voices of their everyday feathered companions. Sometimes, seeing the visual pattern that corresponds to what we hear helps us to recognize that sound and identify it in the future. Why not come by and see if you can match up these six common birdsongs to their corresponding spectrograms? It’s not as hard as you might think, and maybe on your next stroll through the park you can say “I know who that is singing in the tree over there…”