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How Song Birds Learn Songs
By Tom Roudybush
For BirdTimes (2/1/2005)

Birds known as song birds—oscines— that we see mostly in temperate zones are a subgroup of the passerines. In these species males sing in the spring to attract mates and perhaps to defend territory, or for other reasons that we do not as yet understand.



Songs are long vocalizations of songbirds and are distinguished from calls, which are shorter vocalizations. Most of the birds that are kept as pets for their songs sing long songs with vigor and enthusiasm. Seldom are birds kept just to hear their calls.

Learning Songs

In most species of songbirds the song is at least partly innate. The bird hatches with some template of what it will sing already in its brain. In the case of the chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, the newly hatched chick has a chance to hear the song sung by its male parent or by other males of its species. If it hears the song, it will later produce that song with clarity and accuracy. Would the chick have grown into a fully functioning adult singer if it had not heard the song from an adult?


Getting a Song Right

In the case of the chaffinch it is clear that the singing of a song is an interaction between the innate storage of the song in the brain, which we call the template, and the fine tuning of the song by hearing an adult. If male chaffinches are deprived of hearing an adult male chaffinch sing its song, the deprived chicks grow into adults that sing poorly. They have the basic idea, but lack the detail needed to get the song right. If after they are adult, the deprived chaffinch hears another adult male chaffinch correctly sing its song, the deprived chaffinch does not change its song. If a male chaffinch is to sing its song correctly, it needs to hear the song sung correctly while it’s young.

If you are keeping songbirds as pets to hear their beautiful song, you might want to make sure that the new chicks in your collection of birds have the opportunity to hear their parents sing the songs you want to have your bird sing when it grows to adulthood. There are, however, other scenarios that different species follow that allow you some latitude.


When Do They Learn?

The chaffinch is one of the most studied songbirds in the world. Chicks at hatch have incomplete abilities to hear and are not likely to learn much about song until they can hear it clearly at a later time when their hearing is developed. Chaffinches learn their songs as juveniles or during the following spring, with sensitive times for learning occurring during each of these time periods. Each of these is called a sensitive phase.

The marsh wren, Troglodytidae, like the chaffinch, has phases during which it is sensitive to learning songs. Wrens that learn a lot during their early sensitive phase are less able to learn during their later sensitive phase and wrens that learn little during their early sensitive phase learn more readily during their later sensitive phase. In the total of their sensitive phases they learn about the same number of songs. It appears that their capacity to learn songs is limited, and that they learn songs with greater or lessor proficiency depending on whether they have much room left to learn new songs.


Repetition and Learning

Even with their various sensitive phases birds need to hear a song a number of times before they are able to reproduce it. Following is a chart that lists the number of times various species need to hear a song before they can reproduce it correctly. These songs are relatively short. Though a white-crowned sparrow needs to hear a song between 120 and 252 times before it could reproduce it, this number of songs could be sung by an adult in about an hour.


Species                      Repetition Before Learning

Song Sparrows                       30


Nightingale                              10 poor repetition

                                               15 good repetition


White-crowned Sparrow          more than 102
                                                            252 adequate


Where'd You Hear That?

Zebra finches, Poephila castanotis, will not learn from a tape recorder, while some other species will learn songs from a tape recorder. When teaching birds to sing their characteristic songs, determine whether it will learn from a recorder or whether you will need to train it with a live member of its species. In the laboratory some species have been taught with the recorded songs of their species while others have not learned from recorders.


Other Kinds of Learning

There are two kinds of learning other than the juvenile and first spring learning. One is learning only as a young adult and the other is called "open-ended learning" in which a bird may learn for several years as an adult. The indigo bunting, Passerina cyanea, learns its song as a young adult. Other birds such as the village indigobird, Vidua chalybeate, exhibit ‘open-ended learning’ and may change their songs from year to year. The male village indigobirds display as groups with the group sharing a specific repertoire of songs that change from year to year with all of the males changing together. If a male leaves one group of males for another, he learns the songs of the new group.

Other species that change their repertoire from year to year are the starling, Sturnidae, and the canary, Serinus canarius. The male canary will add new syllables in its second year and loose some others, increasing its repertoire as it gets older.


Are You Keeping Secrets?

It’s possible that some of the species that seem to increase their repertoire from year to year are not actually learning new songs. but are just starting to sing songs they learned earlier. Since we know that many birds learn all the songs they will eventually sing as much as a year before they actually begin to sing them, it’s not inconceivable that they would save some of these songs for later years. It’s unlikely species that learn the songs of other species or from groups of their own species are doing this. They are likely learning new material as they go. In any case it’s advisable to expose all of your birds during their sensitive phases to the songs they wifi eventually sing.

Social Influences

Social influences in learning of song are a variable that will likely lead you to leave your young birds with adults for at least their first year. There is some debate on how young birds learn their songs, and there is also considerable variation in how the young of different species learn.

One example of a songbird that is influenced socially in its learning of song is the white-crowned sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys. It has been studied using tapes to find its sensitive phase, and as part of these studies it was exposed to tapes of sparrows of closely related species such as the Harris’s sparrow, Zonotrichia querula, and the song sparrow, Melospiza melodia. In these experiments the white-crowned sparrow did not copy tapes of the Harris’s sparrow or the song sparrow. Later, in another set of experiments, white-crowned sparrows were exposed to adult Harris’s sparrows or song sparrows directly as live tutors during the sensitive phase. In this experiment the songs of both species were sung when the white-crowned sparrows matured. White-crowned sparrows would even learn the song of the strawberry finch, Amandava armandava punicea, an unrelated Asian Pacific species, when they were housed together during the white- crowned sparrow’s sensitive phase. Clearly there is some social interaction going on in this situation that goes beyond what happens when a white-crowned sparrow is exposed to songs on a tape.


Zebra Finches

Zebra finches will not learn from a tape, but they will learn from a live tutor. When the live tutor is not visible such as when there is an audio hookup or when it is concealed behind an opaque partition, young zebra finches will not learn from the tutor. They will learn from a tutor that is separated from them by a wire mesh. They need to see their tutor in order to be able to learn.

Even this conclusion has been brought into doubt. When young zebra finches were blindfolded and exposed to adult zebra finches, they learned their song, while other young zebra finches separated from their tutors by a partition did not. Some young zebra finches were taught to peck at a key to have a tape recorder play a 15 second tape of song. At the same time that the song was played for the, finches that pecked the key, the tape was played for other finches that had no key to peck. When the two sets of birds later sang their songs, those that had access to the key to peck sang better than those that didn’t have a key to peck. The interaction with the key was enough to help the zebra finches learn their songs. There is some level of interaction with the tutor that is important for the finch to learn its song, but the level of the required interaction is yet to be determined.


Female Influence on Male Song

A species of bird in which the female influences the song sung by the male is the brown-headed cowbird, Molothrus ater, a brood parasite. It lays its eggs in the nests of other species of birds and therefore never sees its offspring. Since there is no interaction between the parents and the chick, there is no opportunity for the parents to influence what songs are sung when the chicks mature.

There are two subspecies of brown-headed cowbirds, and they sing different songs. When the birds mature the male displays for the female and as part of his display sings songs to which the female responds. When she hears a song that she favors, she goes through a behavior called "wing-stroking" in which the wings move rapidly back and forth out from the body. The male responds to this "wing-stroking" by singing these songs more often. When a male brown-headed cowbird of one subspecies is exposed to a female of the other subspecies, he learns the songs of her subspecies and sings these songs to her. She actually teaches him what song to sing by her "wing-stroking" response without ever singing herself.


Use or Loose It

In some species of sparrows there is evidence they stop singing songs they know based on the songs that are sung around them. They start singing four or five songs early in the season and gradually stop singing some of them, keeping only the one or two songs that are sung by their neighbors or by their most actively singing neighbor. This unusual behavior leads to the conclusion that some birds have more songs stored in their brains than they can use and that these songs are innate rather than learned. This is yet another social influence on birdsong.


From Which Adults do Young Birds Learn?

It is not actually confirmed that chicks learn their songs from their parents. The sensitive phase for learning in most birds is shortly after the chick has been thrown out of the nest and forced to fend for itself. In some cases the parents actually drive the chick away to get rid of it. In this case it could be argued that the parents are the least likely of the birds in the neighborhood to teach their chick anything. Chicks will usually try to associate themselves with adults of their species, choosing those that most closely resemble their parents. Chicks will usually try to stay in close proximity to their parents even though the parents try to drive the chick away. It's possible that as the chick becomes more able to forage on its own that the parents will become more tolerant of it and allow it to return to their territory and learn from them.


Late Chicks and Early Chicks

All of these social influences and the need for a chick to be tutored are further complicated by the seasonality of singing in songbirds, which is related to reproduction. Since most song- birds live in temperate zones, they respond to the length of the day as a cue of when it is appropriate to breed. They breed in the spring. When they are breeding the males are singing their songs. As the breeding season comes to a close there is less singing and less opportunity for chicks to learn from the male parents or other males in the area. It appears that this difference in the amount of song sung in the early season compared to the late season leads to chicks hatched in the late season learning fewer songs than the chicks hatched early in the season.

This may explain in part why some species of songbirds have two sensitive phases, one just after fledging and one in the spring of the following year. This allows chicks hatched late in the breeding season to acquire songs sung by other more mature males during the chick’s first breeding season.


Training Songbirds as Pets

Different songbirds learn how to sing in different ways and from different tutors. The question remains of how all these varied possibilities might be used to greatest advantage in the breeding and training of songbirds as pets. In old Japan these factors were well understood. Bird fanciers would pay fees to have their young birds tutored by prize-winning tutors-both captive and wild bred. For example, a person would build a hut near a skylark that was singing a "good" song and charge fanciers to bring their birds to the hut. If an older pupil started to chirp while other birds were present, it would be immediately removed to avoid having younger pupils pick up bad traits. The Japanese had a good understanding of the properties of bird song.

One way to properly train song- birds with the "best" song is to use the Japanese method. Keep your young birds during their sensitive phases in the presence of a male that sings a "good" song and allow your pupils to be properly tutored. This is roughly what happens in the wild except that wild birds don't have the luxury of having the best singer chosen for them.

An alternative method of teaching is to tape the song you want your young birds to learn and continuously expose these pupils to the song during their sensitive phases. There are some considerations of importance in this. One is whether the species you are tutoring will learn from a tape. If not, this method obviously won't work. Another possible problem is that the song you choose might be outside the range of songs that your pupil is capable of learning. While white-crowned sparrows might learn the song of the strawberry finch in the presence of an adult tutor, there is still a limit to which songs a specific species might learn. You may need to experiment to fInd the range of your birds.

Clearly, no matter what method you choose to tutor your birds, they must be tutored if they are to sing their song clearly and in great detail. Untutored birds lack a detail and range in their song, which is usually considered unpleasant compared to properly tutored singers.


Providing a Tutor Out of Season

The chicks that hatch late in the year may not have a chance to learn their songs from adult males during their first sensitive phase. You may wish to provide a tutor in captive-bred birds during this time, but lack a male that is still breeding and singing. Most songbirds, and only the males, sing only during the breeding season. If you have a species in which this is a problem, there is a way to bring pairs into breeding condition on demand.

Most temperate zone birds respond to the lengthening of the day during spring and come into breeding condition. In the species that have been studied, the season during which they do not breed is characterized by short days and long nights. Nights as long as 16 hours and days as short as eight hours are often seen. After about six weeks of this light schedule the birds have experienced a long enough ‘winter’ for them to perceive a schedule of 16 hours of light and eight hours of dark as ‘spring’. By putting your tutors in a room with "winter" conditions and increasing the amount of light to ‘spring’ conditions a week or two before tutors are needed — depending on the species — you can have tutors available any time you are likely to need them. This may require some experimentation with species that have not been kept in captivity long enough for their specific requirements to be known, but it’s possible to work out all the details in a few months of experimentation.


When Do Males Stop Singing?

The time when male songbirds stop singing depends on the species and the situation. Some species of songbirds will produce more than one set of young per year. They will sing for a good part of the spring and into the summer. Other species sing only for a relatively short time. There are two main factors that determine when a bird is likely to stop singing. One is the end of a breeding cycle. This leads to the problem of later chicks not being exposed to tutoring, because there are no males still singing when the chick enters its first molt during which the hormone balance in a bird radically changes. It’s a clear signal that breeding has come to an end and that fall and winter conditions prevail. This occurs even in canaries that have been bred for centuries to sing for as long as possible after the breeding season.

If you intend to buy a songbird, such as a canary, for its ability to sing, it’s important to keep these facts in mind. A canary bought in the spring will not sing all the year. Eventually all birds need to molt to prepare for the next breeding season. The bird you buy in the spring will not sing so well in the fall. A bird that doesn’t sing at all in the winter or fall might be a prolific and inspiring singer in the spring and summer. No matter where you buy a bird as a singer, be sure to ask the breeder about its song throughout the year to avoid disappointment later.



Canaries are a species of songbird that has been domesticated and bred for centuries. Some of these birds have been bred for conformation, color, and feather characteristics and others have been bred primarily for their song, such as the German roller canary. This bird was bred primarily in the Harz Mountains of Germany particularly in the area of St. Andreasberg in the 18th century. Many of the people who bred these canaries were coal miners and doubtless used these canaries to detect gas in the coal mines. An essential characteristic of a canary in a coal mine is that it sings. When a canary stopped singing in a coal mine the miners knew it was time to get out. The miners were interested in breeding canaries that were both constant and pleasant singers.

German roller canaries are still available. In the mid 19th century the market for they boomed in Europe and the United States. Some of these birds were tutored by mocking birds and other great singers. Later, a musical device called a roller organ was developed specifically to tutor roller canaries. The lessons that had been learned in Japan using other species of songbirds were relearned in Germany and the United States, and the mechanical abilities of the cultures of the industrial revolution were applied to enhance the successes of the breeders of the German roller canary.

The German roller canary is supposed to have a soft song sung in a melodic manner that is pleasant to the ear. This is in contrast to the shrill loudness of the common canary. It is characteristic of the roller canary that it sings with its mouth closed. The song covers three octaves and roller canaries are trained to sing in ‘tours’, which are individual musical passages. These tours are sung in a rolling fashion, which is why these birds are called roller canaries. There are 13 tours, which consist of a hollow roll, bass roll, flutes and hollow bell with supplemental tours, with each tour varying in tempo and resonance. Most birds are not accomplished in all the 13 tours.

If you propose to buy a canary for its singing quality the German roller canary is considered the best of all the varieties, but the training the bird receives is most important. Be sure to inquire about this aspect of any bird you buy. Also remain aware that German roller canaries molt just as other birds molt, and that they will have periods when they do not sing. Keep in mind that only male canaries sing.