How do birds make so many sounds?
Birds have a vocal organ called a “syrinx” that mammals (and other vertebrates) lack. Different groups of birds have specialized syrinxes that can produce different sounds, but all of them allow for a wide variety of vocalizations.
Humans have a single set of vocal chords that sit in the windpipe, or trachea. Most birds’ syrinxes, on the other hand, are located where their trachea branches in two (towards each lung). This allows some songbirds, like thrushes, to regulate the air exiting each lung individually, creating two distinct notes at once. Other birds, like parrots, have a syrinx in their trachea—but with more moving parts than human vocal chords.
All syrinxes share this complexity. In addition to using membranes that vibrate to produce sound, the syrinx contains a network of muscles to “shape” air as it exits their lungs—sort of like how we use our lips to whistle, but with a few added degrees of complexity.
10. Screaming Piha
This group of Pihas from the Amazon sound… just plain rude.
9. Slate-colored Solitaire
Like the Veery in Massachusetts, these members of the thrush family give the forest soundscape an ethereal feel with their clear, echoing whistles. Click on 2:18 for the best part!
8. Andean Goose
These aren’t flatulent geese- that’s just their syringeal flutter.
7. Willow Ptarmigan
Ptarmigans sound cartoonish, and their clucking can resemble the sound of human speech.
6. Great Jacamar
Ambush predators of the rainforest mid-story, Jacamars can sit motionless for hours waiting for their butterfly prey to come within catching distance. Their nasal, drawn-out calls fade out towards the end, sounding almost lazy, and evoking the midday heat of tropical forests.
5. Short-tailed Shearwater
Shearwaters and petrels are often silent at sea, but clamorous at their burrows.
These birds are incredibly loud, and their voices can carry for miles. They’re known locally as the “calfbird” for their lowing, cow-like moans.
3. Laughing Kookaburra
A classic sound of the Australian bush at dawn, gregarious Kookaburras duet and countersing with each other frequently.
2. Imperial Snipe
This combination of cackles and what sounds like a landing spaceship is just about as weird as it gets. But the otherwordly humming and buzzing that accompanies the Snipe’s vocalization is created by air rushing past its wings as it displays– so the snipe only comes in at #2.
1. Horned Screamer
Screamers gulp like bitterns, honk like geese, and irritate residents of Amazonian South America with their dawn cacophanies like no other bird.
What do you think about this (deeply subjective) ranking? Can you think of any birds that should have made the cut?