Language has always been considered the exclusive resource of human beings.
But in the animal kingdom, birds, not primates, communicate at the level of vocal complexity and diversity closest to ours. Ornithologists have made progress in understanding the rich diversity of ways birds speak, thanks in part to large and growing databases of bird calls such as those at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which includes millions of recordings captured by citizen scientists.
This summer, The New York Times Bird Project encourages readers to experience birds by ear. So here’s a quick tour of the bird scene.
Each type of bird has its own distinct set of sounds. Consider the black tit, which frequents the northern United States and southern Canada year-round.
Compared to bird calls, birdsong tends to be more complex, with multiple notes and a clear pattern. And many songbirds learn it. They are not born knowing them already.
Ornithologists have described this process as a form of cultural evolution. “Bird song has a lot of similarities to human language,” said Karina Sanchez, an expert in bird communication at the University of New Hampshire.
Through citizen science recordings, researchers have found regional dialects within species, subtle changes that, over the years, have become dominant across populations.
Here is a song from the great thrush, a common bird in the highlands of northwestern South America.
Some birds attract mates not with a song specific to a particular species, but with a large repertoire, including sounds borrowed from other species.
For example, the brown lesson, which can be found from eastern North America to parts of southern Canada, has one of the largest musical repertoires in North America with over 1,000 songs.
But the imitation of birds goes beyond the imitation of other birds. Some birds have been known to imitate wallabies, humans, and even machines.
You can learn more about bird calls and songs around you with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Free Merlin Bird ID appwhich The Times encourages people to use in its summer birding project.
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