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Sophisticated songbird singing

by Dan Stowell, Queen Mary University of London

A human's larynx  : copyright www.istockphoto.com 39765352

How do songbirds make such complex sounds? The answer is on a different branch of the tree of evolution...

We humans have a set of vocal folds (or vocal cords) in our throats, and they vibrate when we speak to make the pitched sound. Air from your lungs passes over them and they chop up the column of air letting more or less through and so making sound waves. This vocal 'equipment' is similar in mammals like monkeys and dogs, our evolutionary neighbours. But songbirds are not so similar to us. They make sounds too, but they evolved this skill separately, and so their 'equipment' is different: they actually have two sets of vocal folds, one for each lung. Sometimes if you hear an impressive complex sound from a bird, it's because the bird is actually using the two sides of their voice-box together to make what seems like a single extra-long or extra-fancy sound. Songbirds also have very strong muscles in their throat that help them change the sound extremely quickly. Biologists believe that these skills evolved so that the birds could tell potential mates and rivals how healthy and skillful they were.

So if you ever wondered why you can't quite sing like a blackbird, now you have a good excuse!