I wonder what a bird would sing if it didn't have its parents around (or any other birds for that matter) to learn its chirping sounds from.

I'm interested in how a bird would sing...

  1. in complete isolation from creatures communicating through sound;
  2. in isolation from its own species, but with other birds;
  3. in isolation from all birds (other animals and creatures are there for it)

For example,

  1. Would a bird even feel the need to speak up if there wasn't any other vocalizing creature around?
  2. Would a bird learn other species' signals? Would it only learn from one species, the one which it would think of a fitting mate?
  3. Would a bird try to mimic a non-flying creature's signals?

These are similar questions, but if you think they should be separated, let me know in the comments.


1 Answer 1


Birds have to learn their song patterns. They are able to chirp, but the songs with "meaning" are learned from their parents or whatever they learned to be their "parent".

Here is a paper that related bird song learning to human learning (of speech, for example). Birds brought up by parents from another species learned to sing their songs. There are many birds that learn to imitate other animals or sounds, so in isolation from all birds they will probably do this.

I can't recall where, but I read a paper once, where little finches brought up by humans developed a song resembling the "Hello there, now there's food", their caretaker always greeted them with. (Not the speech, but the overall sound pattern.) They might not understand the signals, but they try to communicate nevertheless. Some birds use sound from other species to mock others, scare them off or lure them into thinking they might be more powerful than they are.

Birds brought up in total isolation do sing, but not the typical songs you know from their species. Deaf birds who can't hear themselves, though, do not (always) sing.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice, thanks for sharing! I was also interested in how birds initially created their species-specific melodies. There probably wasn't someone to teach them, so they must have invented those tunes and then those tunes evolved. Do you know anything about that? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 7:21
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    $\begingroup$ As birds also have regional dialects, the development of their song is part of evolution, like for humans the development of speech, languages and dialects. How that works involves a lot of time and a lot of science I know nothing about. And, I thing the "first development of meaning for a birdsong"-mechanism involves a lot of speculation, too. It might just be similar to development of hindering feathers, that make birds more attractive to their mates. The more elaborate a song, the more effort went into it. So the dads singing songs the mums like got more offspring to teach it to. $\endgroup$
    – skymningen
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 7:25
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    $\begingroup$ this is not true of all birds, yes many birds learn their songs but many birds have completely gene programed instinctual songs. cuckoo's being a classic example. Some will instinctually know a basic song but learn to refine it and make it more complex. there is a whole spectrum of bird song behavior. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 2:06

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