Pictured here, a sassy white wagtail (Motacilla alba)

Who can claim more fame and praise for their “talking” (i.e., acoustic communication) other than songbirds, with their beautiful and complex songs? This, which is such a telltale sign of the arrival of spring, delights us and inspires art and poetry. Which bird species can you spot in this audio clip?

The way these birds build their repertoire of songs is through vocal learning, a skill that we share as well. It means that, throughout our whole life, we hear sounds, internalise them, and then are able to reproduce them in specific contexts and situations, likely forever. This skill requires special brain pathways, which exist in our huge brain and the tiny brain of the smallest songbird. Goes to show that size means nothing.

Interestingly, in songbirds, only the males are capable of learning and singing songs. So, if you go out today and hear birds singing around, be sure to address the artist as Sir Bird. If you want a translation, the lyrics will most likely be “Where be thou, my fluffy dame?” or “Dude, get out of my yard.” Sounds beautiful, regardless.

Want to learn more about vocal learning?

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