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Birds usually sing to defend a breeding territory and attract a mate. Birds also make other sounds usually referred to as calls. These are made at any time of the year whereas songs are usually heard before and during the breeding season. Calls can be used to keep a feeding flock together like the calls of a flock of Long-tailed Tits moving along a hedgerow. Calls can also be used to warn of danger, such as the loud calls of a Blackbird when it is startled. Calls are usually short bursts of simple sounds.
Songs on the other hand are usually very complicated. Different species of birds have developed different songs. This enables different species to sing at the same time without confusing each other. Birds that nest in colonies or loose groups tend to have less complicated songs. Examples of this type of song would be Rooks or House Sparrows. Birds that defend a territory tend to have more elaborate songs.
Wren (photo by John Fox)
In a woodland different species sing at different levels. For example wrens usually sing from low bushes while Blackbirds will sing from the top of the tallest trees. This also helps each bird to be heard by others of the same species. If they all sung from the same height the songs would be harder to separate and there would be fierce competition for singing places!
Studies have shown that young birds learn how to sing the song of their own species though some will rob phrases from other species. The Starling is notorious for mimicking other birds and other sounds. They have been records mimicking car alarms and even a referee's whistle. Blackbirds and Sedge Warblers also "steal" phrases from other birds.
Chaffinch (male) (photo by Michael Finn)
Birds of the same species have been shown to have accents just like humans. Irish Chaffinches have a different accent to Scandinavian Chaffinches. The study of recordings of birds' songs have also shown that no two birds of the same species have exactly the same song. This is exactly the same as someone from China thinking that all Irish people sound the same.
Also, birds have to learn to sing, just like we learn to talk. Young birds practice during their first year and fine tune it from year to year.
The dawn chorus is just like an orchestra. The different species are like different instruments and when all sing together the sound is amazing.