MadSci Network: Zoology

Re: why do seabirds squawk and land birds sing?

Date: Wed Nov 21 14:57:38 2012
Posted By: dave armstrong, Faculty, Biology,Bath College
Area of science: Zoology
ID: 1352179206.Zo

Hi Rupert,

Glad your teacher asked you this!

You really should think about this carefully, in the same way that you think about some birds as "seabirds" instead of seagulls. Land birds don't all sing of course, but the ones we call songbirds sing a lot for a special reason.

It's usually the male bird that sings from a bush, a tree or a rooftop. He is advertising for a mate, to start with. Then later he sings to protect a territory from other males, or he does both at the same time. The song is a very competitive event in a bird's life; if he can't sing, he won't have any young. So the song has become very important to song birds in the same way as the feathery plumage.

Maybe you know of lyre birds or some others that look really bright or colourful when they are in their mating plumage. The singing nightingale is so tuneful that he has been written about by poets in many languages, and yet you rarely see him. In this bird, the dialect of his singing language is passed on from generation to generation. So the young birds learn how to sing from their fathers and other singers. I don't know how many birds sing in such complicated ways, but there are quite a few who do.

The seabird squawk language worries me. It hasn't been studied much, so we have to go by the effects of this "bad language." Seagulls have been called umineko or sea-cats by the Japanese because they sound like quarrelling cats. I'm sure quarrelling is the basis of the noise they make. If they don't make much noise, they too might have less young of their own. In order to get some food from the communal feeding and scavenging on the beach that is their habitat, they have to bully and bait and grab when they can. Somehow the noise seems to help. Many seabirds can be quiet for long periods. If you visit their crowded nesting sites, however, there is always a din. This means that many seabirds make a noise to establish their small nesting territory, just like those songbirds.

Maybe that's why they "claim" a bit of territory in the form of food on the beach. There is also the defensive aspect of noise, of course. Many creatures, including humans may avoid a very noisy bird, that otherwise they could eat. If you visit most species of tern, you must expect some horrific noise and being six feet tall will not protect you from various physical assaults.

To summarise, the singing and squawking seems part of bird behaviour. Many species commit murder, robbery and other crimes so that they can feed their young and rear them with a mate. Nature was never more red (bloody) than in the beak and claw of a bird. Ask your teacher if they know how murderous European robins can be. The noises birds make help some individuals to avoid being vicious or being damaged themselves by persuading others with their "voice."

Please get back to us if you'd like to know more about other birds or other songsters, if you like.

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