Why Birds Sing

Why Birds SingInspired by musician and eco-philosopher David Rothenberg's book of the same title, this documentary explores the intriguing, charming, complex and often conflicting theories on why birds sing like they do and why humans are so attracted to the sound.

The film features contributions from musicians including Laurie Anderson, Jarvis Cocker and Beth Orton; enlightening and often startling analysis from some of the world's most eminent birdsong scientists; a literary guide to birdsong in poetry; a bizarre birdsong-themed art 'happening'; the creation of a new musical composition from the Afro-Celt Sound System, entirely made up of manipulated birdsongs; and a strange musical duet at New York's Bronx Aviary, featuring humans and birds.

Filmed in the forests, aviaries, studios and laboratories of England, Germany and the USA, this is a colorful, entertaining, informative and occasionally weird journey through the songs of nature that have enchanted and perplexed humans for thousands of years.

Watch the full documentary now (playlist - 1 hour, 20 minutes)

Ratings: 6.72/10 from 18 users.

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46 Comments / User Reviews

  1. Pete

    Do humans have sex because they feel obliged to procreate the species? If birds didn't get a 'hit' from it, whether we want to call that hit 'joy', they wouldn't do it - they are not automatons.
    Scientists are in the business of empirical data, if they have a genuine interest in discovering an answer to this question they could do so.

  2. Karin

    Shame he didn't know me when he went out doing this study as I could saved him some time.I have lived with a group of birds in one space nearly 24/7 for just under 1 year for personal studies and could/can tell him a lot. Birds sing when happy, healthy, compete with other cock birds, to attract , to comfort their hens when sitting on eggs, to mislead a predator when the hen sits on eggs and also to have song competitions. Nice documentary though.

  3. MirjamUrfer

    I enjoyed watching this documentary, even though the scientists in the programme were not given enough time to express themselves. A lot more is actually known about bird song than this documentary explored, and reducing the scientific consensus to the claim that birds only sing to attract mates and to defend their territory is not doing the experts in the field justice. From an evolutionary point of view, a similary argument could be made about humans: ultimately, humans may also sing to attract mates and to pass on their genes. The makers of the documentary didn't seem to feel the need to investigate human musicality any further, which is a shame. One could have brought information about bird song together with theories about the function of human musicality, e.g. Steve Mythen's theory that music served as a protolanguage in early human development. The musicians in the programme didn't contribute to a plausible explanation for the reasons why birds sing, but they excelled at what they do best: entertaining the viewer with all the crazy, fascinating and romantic things they did in relation to or in co-operation with birds.

  4. Matt van den Ham

    that's a neat documentary! I've always wondered about bird-song, I live next to a bird sanctuary and they really do sound like music.

  5. Pratik

    Why do beetles and grasshoppers sing (or rather produce sounds rubbing their legs on their bodies)?

  6. Kurt OConnor

    Frequencies birds deliver on earths surface may have the same affects whales and dolphins have under oceans, to give increasing harmony/energy that may promote balance, to promote growth onto a living planet. Watchers of birds acheive the beauty of enjoying one of many natures gifts. yawnn. Nice bird shots in this video, the Nightengale is a remarkable bird, (so is an African Grey). had to cut it short---

  7. Robyn318

    I have been feeding birds for more than 30 years, from winter to mid spring and I have come to recognize bird vocalizations as their language. There is no doubt that birds do communicate for breeding and territorial protection, however I have found that they also sing for other purposes too; like to let other birds know that the feeder has been refilled. I have one or more chickadees that keep an eye on an empty feeder, flitting back and forth checking on it, while the blue jays and other birds stay in the wooded area quite a distance from the feeder. When I walk out and fill the feeder with black oil seeds, the chickadees immediately raise the volume of their chirps, alerting the other birds that the feeder is filled. And before I leave, the blue jays, nuthatches and more chickadees have gotten into position on a large lilac bush immediately behind the feeder to raid it once I am at a comfortable distance.

    On sunny days in the winter after a little stretch of cold dreary weather, cardinals, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, house finches and sparrows break out into a chorus of song. On some days they seem to compete with each other, sometimes they sing back and forth with each other across the yard, seeming oblivious to the other species doing the same. When a flock of house finches and sparrows get into a competition, it is a cacophony of song and sound that completely fills my yard. None of this has to do with mating or territory; they all share my yard together without fuss during the winter period.

    Once Spring has arrived, I see a definite difference in intra-species interaction and the blue jays become more aggressive and possessive of the feeder.

    Then there was a summer about ten years ago when we had a very bad drought that lasted for months and not one bird could be heard…anywhere. A local biologist I was talking to even commented that a species of local sparrow he called ‘3 note’, that could always be heard to sing their 3 note song was eerily quiet during this particular drought. The birds were obviously stressed by the lack of fresh water. Once the rain came so did the bird songs.

    About David’s work, I think that part of the reason he didn’t get as many responses from his attempts at communicating with birds is that he ‘hogged’ or ‘flooded’ his attempts; meaning his repertoire was too long. I think he should have attempted six or seven notes and waited for a reply, instead of playing an entire piece. I know when someone I don’t know comes up to me starting a conversation and doesn’t give me a chance to contribute, I get put off by it.

    Personally, I think he is onto something. On a basic level our needs are no different then a birds needs. When we are stressed we become unusually quiet; when we are happy we let everyone within earshot know about it.

    1. bud oracle

      Robyn318, this is one of the best comments I have ever read on the internet. Thanks for sharing your world... sounds like a dream I once had

    2. sknb

      How lucky to share and observe nature. Thank you. It's good to know that somewhere in this chaos and pain we call a planet there is someone like you. Someone who listens to birds.

  8. MagnetoWasRight

    David gets on my nerves.

  9. Samuel Morrissey

    Find me the name of that experiment or the scientists who performed it or a transcript of the results - It really sounds interesting, unless of course it is a joke from a light comedic novel (I do enjoy Pratchetts novels :)

    If the dark was there already it never had to travel at any speed. Even when there was nothing, the dark was there as it in itself is an absence of light. Nothing is the absence of everything. Can you explain the paradox? Light and dark are antagonistic dualities. One is the absence of the other, and yet without either one the other cannot exist. A candle casts a shadow... This is a quality of existent things, that they can be noticed by the observation that they are either there, or not. If God existed, his absence would be observable as well as his presence.

    Again though, and I am sorry to be a pedant, but the meaning of the word indoctrination is something that teachers of religion do, but the meaning of science (sceptical analysis) explicitly contradicts, by the fact that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned. It is implicit in behavior modification, self deception, propaganda techniques and psychological manipulation. You will not find evidence of it in true science.

    A tradition with loyal followers I can accept and with good reason, but this seems to lead you into the 'same team' logical fallacy. Argument - My body is 70% water. The Earths surface is 70% water. Conclusion - My body is also the earths surface...

    But going back to novels, here are some of my all time favorite words -

    Only in silence the word,

    only in dark the light,

    only in dying life :

    bright the hawk's flight on the empty sky.

    - Ursula K. Le Guin

    Regards, Sam


    i don't trust anyone that says they know for sure.
    much has been discovered but much more is yet to be discovered. the more i watch these science docs the more i realize that science is also a "religion." people have been clinging to very old ideas- and any new ones that pop up are considered heresy. and in the end, its all just a bunch of theories.

    1. Samuel Morrissey

      No, science is not a religion, you are mistaking science for a bad documentary. You might also want to look up the word theory, oft used rarely correctly.


      i stand by my comment. just an observation. and theory is not fact, it can/ may be factual, but there is still a difference btwn them.
      ex. it is often agreed that nothing is faster than the speed of light. maybe there is something "new" to be "discovered." i've always believed that "dark" is faster than "light."

    3. Samuel Morrissey

      Your example is nonsensical - but for arguments sake, lets agree with it. In that condition, when a light is switched off, the darkness would arrive before the last light did, so shortly after it went dark, there would be a pulse of light, which leads to a logical paradox - after this pulse it would be dark again, so how did this next darkness not arrive before the last pulse - if it did, there would be another pulse of light shortly afterward... ad infinitum. Why would you 'believe' something like that? have you done experiments to test it?

      I can explain the word theory to you simply as - as close to fact (certainty) as it is possible to be, with current understanding. Gravity is a theory, not a fact. Did you look it up?

      Since you stand by your comment, tell me what did you observe, that makes you think science is also a religion?

      Regards, Sam.


      can't recall the name but i remember a study where they tested light and dark.. someone at a distance flashes a light and keeps in on. they recorded the speed at which the observer saw the light turn on. they also recorded the speed in which the observer saw the light turn off. this experiment was of course repeated in different countries with consistence results. dark was faster. but since u already kno everything about this , then u are free to believe what u see, just like me. newer information in the quantum field of studies would even suggest a relationship btwn experiments outcome and the observer (ie "double slit") which puts a lot into question if in fact science is all based on the success of a hypothesis in experiments. How is it similar to religion? well the word indoctrination comes to mind. as well as tradition and many loyal followers.
      The air of your responses are quite in line with these similarities. i ask why not? and you of course know the answer to that. but i stand by the speed of dark is faster and will keep my eyes open for any new discoveries about such questions. Either way Sam, I hope all is well and nice to share dialogue with you



      “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” - terry pratchett

    6. Samuel Morrissey

      Hmmm I'm not sure why but my last reply came out as a normal post?

      Anyway, All is well, likewise it is nice to converse.

      Kind Regards, Sam.

  11. toddy

    I've kinda thought that the morning bird song that starts around an hour or so before the sun rise was their way of greeting the sun or announcing that the sun is rising. It's quite awesome to go from more or less silence to a few sounds and it builds to a chorus of sounds then dies down after the sun has been up for a bit. Lets face it I find bird song very relaxing and its fun to whistle back to them to see their responce unless of course they decide to peck your eyes out for making fun of them.

  12. J. G. LaLone

    The arrogant scientist, Peter, is the epitome of the narrow minded scientist living high on the hog, and acting high and mighty, a self appointed priest on high. Peta, Peta, Peta, so narrow minded and arrogant. Thank God, throughout history there has been the rogue scientist who made amazing discoveries. Most times it has not been the nit-picking scientist spending a life time (oh, 60 years) studying the sexual habits of fleas to fatten his purse with bizarre grants of great sums who has made one or another life changing discovery. Those are the scientists who tell the rest of us we are fools for being open minded to great wonders of a world it will take forever to understand. I have witnessed scientists who disrespect experts who live with and study subjects, without the almighty advanced degree in a subcategory of a major science, like farmers and mothers (field scientists). The self glorified academic scientist such as Peter would proclaim erroneous the ideas of the field scientists, only to "discover" the very observation the farmers and mothers had known for centuries and more, and claim it as their own observation. (Example: The very early age an infant can see and follow it's mother or other care taker.)

  13. PavolvsBitch

    'Let those who will be deceived, be deceived'. The evidence backs every claim I make.

    1. SuSwastika

      >> 'Let those who will be deceived, be deceived'.
      I don't get it.

  14. Crab_Nebula

    I think that birds see humans as slow motion creatures, that make sounds like a record set to a slower speed.

  15. Juraj Filkorn

    ravens are known for playful behavior. also I have seen a doc here about synaesthesia which may shed light on this phenomenon, in terms that birds may do music as we do.

    anyway, i could understand some of those birds when they were responding to those guys imitating them -"I am trying to mate so STFU!!!" :D:D

  16. magarac

    Well i guess that they mostly sing because they can.

  17. PaulGloor

    @nebra clorophyl and water vapour :P
    @DaftAida we have to thank science for a great deal of understanding and quality of life. We have corperatons, governments and people who want a quick buck to thank for its exploitation and ruination of the environment.
    Why do birds sing ? Perhaps a lot of column a and a little of column b. We cannot be sure of a definate emotional state of a bird and therefor cannot assume it sings for reasons other than what we can confirm through science.

  18. alans

    Rotenberg masturbate to bird song

    1. jbriggs_87

      not literally i assume?

  19. alans

    bird song is important for inspiration

  20. KooKookaChoo

    this guy is a huge flake! lmao
    I don't know how much more I can handle. Kudos to the scientists who are able to put up with him, there is so much wrong with what he's said so far that I don't even know where to begin. what a joke!

  21. Daniel Robinson

    is that charlie shine with the pan flute? lmao

  22. PavolvsBitch

    Cat's purr, birds sing and on comes the dopamine. Nice one!

  23. PavolvsBitch

    The ed miller band looks like a rook (as in Crook) and little tatty what's 'is name - Clegg is a lame Coot!

  24. PavolvsBitch

    That's so funny; has anyone else noticed how 'Dave' Cameron cum Astor looks and sounds like a little cross budgie on his podium at question time (although I've only seen this in my minds eye).

  25. PavolvsBitch

    Now, what have scientists contributed for all the money they've been allocated from the public purse? Well, there's nuclear pollution, oil and gas pollution, deadly vaccines, disabilities, fluoride, chemtrails, bombs, depleted uranium ....Smug, corrupt, theiving, lying whores. Science has declared war on nature; that includes human nature the f'ing pratts.

    1. Juraj Filkorn

      so much bashing. i recommend you research "third culture", and john brockmans page edge, where the best out of best are dealing with similar themes as these. often contributors like dawkins, dennet, pinkers (and many many many others from fields of economy, maths, physics, computers, biology, philosophy...) have open jaws when they hear their colleagues speaking in their respective fields. they teach each other, changing opinions online...

      this documentary and people here just scratch the surface, and there is a synergy of these ideas, but you have to look further.

      most of the points you addressed (if not all) are taken into consideration and ridiculed, debunked by the same scientist you are bashing and blaming.

      I am inclined toward biology, you would be amazed how many new emerging ideas are currently redefining what we are as humans, and that it is truly necessary to be both aesthetically and scientifically educated to truly enjoy reality for what it is.

    2. PavolvsBitch

      There you are then, they bash nature, I bash their contrived 'zionce'. Nature always wins in the end and everything originates from and within nature. Now how difficult is it to see? As if Dawkins isn't absolute evidence at the freaks of nature his science creates and CANNOT FIX. Do me a favour ...
      Actually, this is a bit of a naff site as your comment was made a whole year ago and I've just received notification! Speaks volumes.

    3. durike

      hmm. i got a notification of your reply just now. one of the first notification i got. i kind of miss what are you trying to tell me. i kind of understand the second sentence, to the rest i can use cliche that nothing is black and white. as i understand it, it is the interest in profit that bashes the nature, or lack of information (for example DDT was supossed to be harmfull* but was not in the end). last but not least, i know i do not have it all figured out. for me the question is not how many books i read but how many did I not, it is always the unknown stuff that is bigger and has great impact.


    4. PavolvsBitch

      I agree with the what you are saying here. The reason we have difficulty figuring out fact from propaganda is due to compulsory schooling which is not education. As John Taylor Gatto tags Weapons of Mass Instruction. There is a war against humanity played out by those within and behind Govern (control) Ment (mind). That's my point. We have been and continue to be mind controlled. However, there is a way to break free and learn to discern, to think for ourselves. Assume the opposite then research how close to the truth this is in everything we are given to believe. Check out Tragedy and Hope. Check out Gnostic Media.

    5. wald0

      Thats the most uninformed rant I have encountered today, you win. Science is a way of thinking, a process, not some entity that you can blame for specific happenings. Why are scientific discoveries and innovations misused, because people (politicians, businessmen, etc.) see benefit in doing so, usually monetary benefit. Science gives us the knowledge, what we do with it is up to us. What has science given the world, are you for real? You live in the most technologically dependent age known to mankind, in a world of less violence and misery than yesterday (even though we all seem to overlook this constantly it is true, check the numbers) in a world that allows you to watch this kind of free educational content and then share your opinion with thousands around the world, need I say more? Medical science can give people the ability to see, hear, walk- again or, in some cases, for the very first time. Bombs, pollution of various kinds, harmful chemical by products- these are not the inevitable consequence of knowing, they are the inevitable consequence of a society that places more importance on the almighty dollar than human life and liberty. The answer is not to move backwards toward some primitve state of affairs in search of some lazy simplicity, it is to learn how to meet the challenge of moving forward as evolved, responsible, caring beings. This means embracing science, knowledge, truth, not hiding from it because we are scared we can't handle the responsibility it entails.

    6. PavolvsBitch

      Medical Science gives you Stephen Hawkins freaks, clones, GMO, extinction. Wake up or forever be asleep. We haven't time for ill-informed lazy assumptions fed to minds addicted to junk media programming.

    7. Samuel Morrissey

      Now, what have priests contributed for all the money they've been allocated from the public purse? Well, there's endless wars, rape and torture, misogyny, segregation, pedophilia, homophobia, murder, persecution ....Self appointed, corrupt, holier than thou, lying blasphemers. Religion has declared war on humanity; that includes other religious humans.

      see what I did there? only without the base insult you left at the end.

  26. PavolvsBitch

    What we call singing is their language of communication; communicating a range of information, just as we do. Far beyond the basic ignorance of 'science' which limits all to basic function of procreation and survival. Have they never seen birds 'play' 'flirt' and talk to eachother as well as humans. Guess the lab doesn't turn them on or the 'scientists' with bad attitude. I have robins who remind me to feed them and turn up to thank me and chat to me whilst I'm gardening. Even the cats have backed off.

    One of the practical reasons birds 'sing' is to communicated with seeds and insects, guiding the creative process according to season, weather pattern, etc. Spring song differs from Autumn song as birds migrate. The Turkey man is awesome.

    So with the 'window of time' for optimum learning ability is scheduled to be spent on useless systems programming. By the time we leave 'school' we've learned next to nothing and are so through with the boring incarceration that this is where learning stops. When the window of opportunity for learning closes. So why these eejit scientists are depriving birds of their natural habitat to 'learn how they learn' escapes me. As did analysing poetry at school (being a poet myself) which can often kill the native experience of weaving meaning of one's own.

    Peter Hill's on the ball. Love songs. In honour of creation. vs the scientific point of view who says 'science hasn't got a strangehold yet on birdsong' and thank god for that!

    1. SuSwastika

      Although, I can feel the general theme of your anguish I cannot agree with the actual statements and claims you've made.

      >> Far beyond the basic ignorance of 'science' which limits all to basic function of procreation and survival.

      Actually, it is the goal of science to push the boundaries of the known into what is "the unknown".
      Like several other commentors said it's the people who mis-use it, by interpreting the unknown whatever way they want, hence the ignorance.

      >> Now, what have scientists contributed for all the money they've been allocated from the public purse?

      A lot actually.

      >> Well, there's nuclear pollution, oil and gas pollution, deadly vaccines, disabilities, fluoride, chemtrails, bombs, depleted uranium ....

      I can actually add a load more to go along with your list, but all of these are the complementary byproduct of some other socially beneficial aspect of science.

      >> Smug, corrupt, theiving, lying whores.

      Yes. That's us, the common public who misinterprets the unknown of science and pushes it into ignorance, who uses it for it's own advantage without caring anything for the outcome.

      What I have to complain is the apathy (removal) of science in polity making and thinking about the future impact (social, cultural, environmental etc.) of it's own discoveries/action. This too isn't really my view against science. Science is honest and impartial.
      I guess it's just the way things work and I feel like there should be something done about it.

      >> You live in the most technologically dependent age known to mankind, in a world of less violence and misery than yesterday (even though we all seem to overlook this constantly it is true, check the numbers) in a world that allows you to watch this kind of free educational content and then share your opinion with thousands around the world, need I say more?

      Yes, if you only consider "the west" as "the world". Afghanistan was one of the Buddhist education centers 2000 years ago. During the Middle ages in Europe people in India were using zero for calculations. I don't have numbers for the rate of violence.

      @Samuel Morrissey
      >> Now, what have priests contributed for all the money they've been allocated from the public purse? Well, there's endless wars, rape and torture, misogyny, segregation, pedophilia, homophobia, murder, persecution ....Self appointed, corrupt, holier than thou, lying blasphemers. Religion has declared war on humanity; that includes other religious humans.

      Why is it that people mention "Religion" when they have "Christianity" in mind? Religion is too big a word to be an umbrella term for all the cruelties and injustice done against humanity and science.

    2. Samuel Morrissey

      Good point. To clarify my meaning when I say 'religion' I intend to include all theistic religions, particularly the Abrahamic ones, but to a lesser extent Hindi and the other polytheist types. Buddhism has no gods so I would not include that.

      Anyway, bit of a childish reply on my part, but felt I should point out that the problems that the abuse of scientific Knowledge causes are no greater than those that the eternal misinterpretation of scripture also creates. At least science can be used to combat its own misuse, whereas thousands of years of translation/misinterpretation have rendered scriptures contrary and virtually meaningless, requiring an arbitrary personal interpretation that carefully ignores all the contradictions and confused moral fallacies.

  27. nebra

    why is grass green, and the sky blue ;)