Bird song (4) songs and calls

This is a rather prosaic subject but, here goes, what’s the difference between a song and a call?

Like many things, it seems pretty straight forward until you get into the depths of the subject. So let’s rise above the detail.

Consider the farmyard fowl. A cockerel, cock or rooster crowing is an example of song, delivered by a male bird to advertise his presence to other males (Stay away, I’m here) and females (Come closer, I’m here). And all those clucking noises are calls – maybe just to keep contact with other members of the flock, or to express the view that there aren’t any predators around or to keep the chicks in line.

Likewise, proper wild birds use songs, usually by males, to defend their territories and attract mates, and they employ calls in a variety of ways.

So, just to revisit the two species I have discussed so far, the Great Tit has a song;

but it also has a variety of calls;

And the Song Thrush has a wonderful song:

but also has a variety of calls

Most birds have calls and they can be of a variety of functional types; alarm calls, begging calls, flight calls, contact calls etc. These are everyday vocalisations, often made by both sexes, usually short in duration and simple in form and often made through the year. They are often innate – hard-wired and not learned.

Songs, however, tend to be sung by males (not always), to defend territories or mates and to attract mates, and are usually (not always) heard in the breeding season. They are often learned rather than innate.

That’s as far as we need go with this for now. The spring, which is creeping up on us, is the time to learn to identify, but also to appreciate, bird song, and that’s what I will concentrate on in the blogs ahead.

And many thanks for the messages of appreciation that I’ve had so far.


3 Replies to “Bird song (4) songs and calls”

  1. I always find the distinction between calls and songs more blurred when it comes to waders and some birds of prey (buzzard mewing?). I absolutely love the piping of oystercatchers, especially at dusk on a summer’s evening, but I wouldn’t know whether to classify it as a call or song. I guess I’m showing my lack of knowledge here, clarification greatly appreciated! Another enjoyable, thought provoking installment thank you Mark.

    1. Agree Jon, many wader vocalisations are not easy to catagorise. I looked in three authoritative books on bird song and came away with very little on this group. But found this for Oystercatcher in the good old Collins Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe:
      Alarm, a strident “kleep, kleep”. Song, a long piping trill, beginning slowly, varying in volume and pace. It’s a lovely short description and good too because, until today, I never knew the bird had a well defined song. Thanks to you and Mark for that.

  2. Yes, calls can be a bit dull compared to songs but they do reward being observed and logged in a systematic way. E.G.: the Song Thrush’s alarm call linked on this blog seems to have gone out of use around here – it’s now a rare sound despite the bird and its song still being frequent. So, this ‘teck-teck-teck’ call has gone from the prosaically unnoticeable to the bizarrely absent – assuming of course that this observation is accurate. But mind, it could be rubbish – due age related hearing loss…
    For extra bizarre behaviour, take Blue Tits which use their song in short sharp choruses (probably including females) to signal to any approaching Sparrow Hawk that it has been seen – therefore ‘there’s no point carrying on hunting this neck of the woods’. (Well that’s what behavioural ecologists were theorising a few years ago. Things may be different now.)
    Anyway, this puzzling ‘alarm song’ (correct term?) is best heard from a slight distance because then
    it presents as a succession of brief choruses rolling by like an audio version of a Mexican wave. Look up and there will invariably be a Sparrow Hawk gliding by in the wake of the sound.

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