Birds in the News

Animal Kingdom Idol: Birdsong vs. Mouse Song

Recent research shows that mice, like birds, use tunes to woo mates, though they do have very different styles.


Birds aren’t the only animals that use their impressive vocal abilities to attract mates—crickets and frogs and humpback whales put their singing talents to similar use, too. Now Duke University researchers have discovered how male mice woo ladies with their high (frequency) notes, too.

Whether mouse song is as delightful as birdsong is still a matter of debate—and maybe a moot point, as well, since mouse singing is inaudible to the human ear. In any case, here’s a breakdown of some of the similarities and differences between the two vocalists.

Birds are well known for their singing skills. Mice . . . are not.

For thousands of years birds have been much celebrated for their musical gifts. In the Odyssey, the Sirens, whose songs lured sailors to their deaths, were half-bird, half-woman.

But it wasn’t until 1925 that scientists began to really look into mouse song. That year, after hearing a mouse chirp, a Detroit resident captured and delivered it to a lab at the University of Michigan. The singing specimen corroborated other anecdotal observations of singing house mice. In 1932 researchers described mouse song as “very bird-like in quality, but weak in volume.” But it is only recently that scientists have begun to decipher the complexity and purpose of mouse-song.

Furry and feathered males alike know music is just an opening act.

It’s long been known that male birds sing in hopes of finding the right mate. The recent research shows that male mice use similar tactics. The Duke researchers tricked male mice into thinking a female was near by sprinkling female mouse urine around (romantic, we know). The male mice sang loud, complex songs when they detected the presence of a lady. When an actual female mouse came close, the gents sang a simpler song—apparently using the energy they had spent singing to pursue her physically instead.

There’s a reason for the saying “quiet as a mouse.”

They might be belting their hearts out, but we humans can’t hear a thing. Mice sing at a shrill 50 kilohertz (kHz)—and our hearing tops out at just over 20 kHz. Mouse songs might be audible to cats, though, which can hear up to about 65 kHz.

Birds, on the other hand, sing at an audible 1-4 kHz—the frequency at which they hear best. Some city birds sing at higher frequencies than country or rural birds, possibly to stand out to each other over the low-frequency hum of traffic.

Each species has a tune of its own.

It was once thought that only the house mouse (Mus musculus) could sing. In fact, as it turns out, most mice sing. And mouse song differs from species to species, just as bird song does.

Birds can learn new songs—mice (probably) can’t.

Songbirds can learn new jams by listening closely to other species. Mice, by contrast, are probably stuck with the few songs they’re born knowing. There’s still a possibility that mice can learn new tunes and we just don’t know it yet—after all, we can’t hear them outside of the lab.

Still, one thing is clear: To us, birds are the better vocalists.