In the last month, mornings outside my window have gone from relatively quiet to a cacophony of sounds. Robins, swallows, finches, juncos and more have arrived and begun singing their little hearts out.
Although the sounds are maybe not as catchy as “Let It Go,” kids can learn a lot about the world around them from the songs of birds.
What are birds saying when they sing?
Sound is one of the easiest ways for birds to communicate. Birds do sing, but they also make a variety of other sounds, including alarm calls to warn other birds or to threaten predators, begging calls made by young birds to attract their parents’ attention, contact calls to keep in touch when traveling or foraging with other birds, and flight calls made to announce their presence while flying.
These sounds are made using their vocal chords, which are membranes in our throats that vibrate to produce a sound. Have your kids touch their throat with their fingers and say “Whoo, whoo, whoo” starting low and ending high. They are making sounds with their vocal chords, which in mammals is called the larynx (lair-inks).
Bird vocal chords, called a syrinx (seer-inks), are shaped differently than ours, and are also further down in the windpipe, which makes it possible to produce two sounds at once. While you can’t sing two sounds at once, try whistling and humming at the same time — it sounds a little bit like a varied thrush.
Birds use their songs primarily in the spring, during breeding season, to communicate about territory, attract a mate or discourage trespassers. Songs are usually longer and more elaborate than other bird sounds. Some birds are born knowing their songs, while others must learn them from their parents. Just like humans speak differently in different parts of the country or world, bird songs of the same species often sound slightly different in different places. Most birds stop singing after breeding season ends.
Bird sounds activities for kids
Brush up on some bird songs. A couple of good tools are Larkwire, an app for iPhone or Android ($2.99), or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Song Hero site. A few easy birds to learn around here are the black-capped chickadee, western meadowlark, American robin and red-breasted nuthatch.
After you’ve learned a few songs, get out and listen for those until you and your kids can identify them easily. Be sure to do this in the spring — bird songs dwindle by late June. Then, try adding a bird song a week to your mental playlist!
You can also make a sound map of bird songs — Take a piece of paper and mark your location in the middle. Face one direction and then, each time you hear a sound, make a mark on your paper in the direction the sound is coming from. Where do you hear the most sounds? What’s the loudest sound you can hear? What’s the quietest?
Act out the different kinds of bird sounds. Have kids act out an alarm call, song, begging call and contact call with each other. Make up a fun story, practice and share with friends and family!
Hillary Schwirtlich, membership and education coordinator for the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, loves introducing people of all ages to the beauty and wonder of North Central Washington.