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How details of bird song reveal details of birds’ social lives

Blue-winged Warbler, singing, artwork by David Allen Sibley.
Blue-winged Warbler (above) sings one song type for females (beee-bzzz), and another song for males (a stuttering buzz). American Redstart (below) repeats one song over and over for females, and gives a more varied performance for males, alternating up to four songs. Art by David Allen Sibley.

A key to appreciating bird song is learning to decipher a little bit of its meaning. Most of the information it contains is beyond our understanding, but one feature is relatively easy to hear and can be revealing: whether successive songs from an individual bird are the same or different.

In most songbirds, each male will use a repertoire of several songs in his performance. You will have to listen closely to hear enough details to compare one song to the next, but as you get tuned in, the differences will become more noticeable.

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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