How a Bird’s Habitat Influences Its Song

Whether in the open tundra or a dense marsh, if a bird wants to be heard, certain sounds travel better than others.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide. 


This is BirdNote.

To our ears, the song of a Marsh Wren may not be the most pleasing. But in a dense habitat of cattails, it’s remarkably effective. The ratchety, low-pitched, explosive notes – like from a tiny machine gun – carry well through the thick vegetation. Similarly, the wren’s next-door neighbor, the Common Yellowthroat, sings a choppy, repetitive song designed to rattle right through a stand of cattails. 

Along the edge of the same marsh, an Olive-sided Flycatcher sings, perched atop a tall tree. Its high-pitched, whistled song carries at least half a mile through the open air. Sharp, clear notes are ideal for a tree-top singer.

Different sounds travel better in different environments. High-pitched sounds have shorter wave-lengths and are more easily stopped by solid objects – so they are better sung from the tree tops. Explosive, low-pitched songs bounce better past solid obstacles, whether tree trunks or dense cattails. And so much depends on the birds getting their message across.

What about birds that have neither tall trees nor dense shrubs to sing from, like the Lapland Longspur? The longspur often takes flight to sing, casting its gentle song into the air as it glides above the Arctic tundra.

Today’s show brought to you by The Bobolink Foundation. For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein.



Sounds of the birds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Marsh Wren [48819] recorded by K.J. Colver; Common Yellowthroat [79476] recorded W.L. Hershberger; Olive-sided Flycatcher [126484] recorded by T.G. Sander; Lapland Longspur [132125] recorded by G. Vyn.

Writer: Bob Sundstrom

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Chris Peterson

© 2014 Tune In to     May 2017/2019   Narrator:  Michael Stein

ID# sound-11-2012-05-14