Are Songbirds Taught To Sing?

Just wondering, if the mother bird has to teach her babies to sing the songs. Obviously birds like the Mockingbird which can sing their own songs as copy other birds learn from hearing (at least I think). But if you took baby birds and raised them without benefit of song, would it know how to sing the song for its species naturally?

No idea, for sure, but the anecdote was related to my third-year Zoology class that a songbird was raised from an egg never hearing anything but the German National Anthem… and that’s the only song it ever whistled, whether hunting or mating or giving the “HEY GUYS! THERE’S A SNAKE DOWN THERE!” warning.

o/` Nazi, Nazi, Nazi, Nazi, Nazi, Nazi
Hitler! Hitler!

Nazi, Nazi, Nazi, Nazi, Nazi, Nazi
Hitler! Hitler!


This is one of those questions that has been studied repeatedly. Here is one author’s take:


Fom an NPR audio file at:

There are only three groups of birds that are known to learn their songs/calls. In the rest it is instinctive, and essentially “hard-wired.” In most birds the nestlings learn the species’ song by hearing nearby males (usually the father) singing (females generally don’t sing). They don’t, however, actually sing the song until the following breeding season, when they are adult. In these species, a nestling raised without hearing the species’ own song will at best sing an incomplete version (although it may have some components). In other species, they will produce a perfect version of the species’ song without ever having heard it before.

The three groups known to learn songs/calls are:

  • The “higher” songbirds, a group known as the Oscines, of the Order Passeriformes. This includes most small songbirds except for the New World Flycatchers and some other groups found mainly in the New World Tropics.

  • Parrots

  • Rather surprisingly, hummingbirds.

I just have to link to the famous segment of David Attenborough and the lyre bird. The bird is imitating chainsaws!

So Colibri, is the lyre bird in the Oscines group?

Traditionally they were grouped with the Suboscines. Recent molecular data has shown, however, that they are actually a basal (“primitive”) group of Oscines. The distinction between Suboscines and Oscines is mainly based on the musculature of the syrinx, or “song box.”

To clarify some of the terminology in my previous post, the Passerines in general are known as “perching birds.” Oscines are the group most properly known as “songbirds.”

You, my friend, owe me a new tall latte with soy, no whip.

Several books on this subject.
Last year I enjoyed reading Bird Song by Don Stap - about both bird song and the people who study it. Really interesting how they design their experiments.

Then my work here is done.

Are the hard-wired groups older on the evolutionary scale, or younger?

Older, in the sense that the “'hard-wired”’ condition is the default, and the ancestral forms were hard-wired. Song-learning ability evolved three separate times from hard-wired ancestors, since the oscine passerines, parrots, and hummingbirds are not closely related.

So. . . is it. . . culture?
(My parrot’s been reshaping bits of chewed-off wood and pen caps to scratch his ear. . . tool-making? How are we special again? He’s got TWO opposible thumbs.)

Sort of. Some bird species have regional song “dialects” due to cultural drift. Sometimes you can narrow down where an individual comes from to a quite small neighborhood by its learned call components.