Do you like to sing? Some people love to sing in front of an audience, while others limit their musical vocalizations to the car or the shower. What about animals? Do they enjoy music? Can they make their own music?
Most people know that birds can sing. You can hear birds singing by walking around your neighborhood or keeping certain species as pets. But did you know that many other types of animals sing as well? Check out our list below for some unexpected mammalian, amphibian, aquatic, and invertebrate musicians.
What constitutes “singing?” Some researchers posit that only birds and humans sing. But by definition, a song consists of “musical modulations of the voice.” According to this definition, many other animals use their voices to sing as well.
What about animals that use something other than vocal cords? For example, are insects that use their bodies like musical instruments really singing? Songs performed by the deaf using sign language are described as singing with their hands. And these animals could be thought of as producing “love songs” – perhaps the most common topic among human music. So, singing insects is not too much of a stretch.
Why do animals make music? Animal singers use their songs to communicate. They may share the location of food, find one another, or attract a mate. They may sing to scare off a rival or warn others of danger. And, like humans, some animals, including birds and whales, sometimes seem to sing just for the sheer joy of it.
Birds are one of the animals that sing. Just open a window or step outside. Do you hear birds singing? Many bird species use complex songs to attract mates, defend their territories, or warn of danger. Each bird species has its own distinct call. You can learn to recognize backyard birds by the songs they sing. For example, the chickadee got its name from its song of “chick a dee dee dee.”
Birds use their songs much as we use language. A single area may be home to many types of birds, but a female can locate a male of her species by its song. These love songs are learned behaviors – a male raised by birds of a different species sings his adoptive parents’ song. Some birds have songs that vary to indicate different dangers – from hawks, cats, or snakes, for example. These warnings may be understood and even repeated by birds of different species.
Do all birds sing? Technically, no, they do not. For example, the cedar waxwing does not make a series of vocalizations that sound like a song. Instead, it produces simple sounds that are known as “calls.”
Whales are also extremely well-known for their vocal abilities. Whales often use their songs to attract a mate, but they can also use them to communicate over the vast distances of the open ocean.
Researchers recently discovered that new “hit songs” become popular in the humpback whale community in a similar manner to human pop charts. These songs often originated in whale populations off the coast of Australia. Within a year, favorite new songs could be heard in whale populations around the world. By then, the Australian whales were already busy creating even more new tunes.
Singing is not limited to baleen whales; a number of toothed whales sing, too. Beluga whales have been termed “sea canaries” due to the abundance of their birdlike calls. Pods of orcas have extremely complex songs, and each group can be identified by its “dialect.”
3. Tree Frogs
In many parts of the world, tree frogs can be heard singing on warm summer nights. Tree frogs sing to announce their territories and to attract females. Their songs have been known to differ according to the weather.
The Pacific tree frog or Pacific chorus frog manifests a unique musical style. A group of these frogs is called a chorus, and for good reason. The area’s dominant male leads the chorus in its song, with subordinate males responding to his lead.
Katydids or longhorn grasshoppers are large insects found in tropical and temperate regions around the world. Male katydids sing to attract a mate by rapidly moving the front wings. To the human ear, some katydid songs sound like the words “Katey did, she didn’t!” This is where the katydid got its name.
Did you know? Katydids, as well as the crickets discussed below, don’t have ears in the same way we do. They hear sounds using a slot-like open space on their knees!
5. Antelope Squirrels
The antelope squirrel is a solitary North American ground squirrel. When threatened, it stomps its feet and trills a warning song. Young squirrels have been observed practicing their songs as they foraged.
Crickets are well known around the world for their songs. Field crickets of the genus Gryllus are ground-dwelling. Male field crickets chirp or sing by rubbing their wings together. One wing has a “file” or sharp ridge while the other has a “scraper,” a series of wrinkles. The field cricket’s wings are designed to produce sound and to amplify it, too. This allows the cricket to use its song to attract a mate. Crickets have multiple songs in their playlists. The “calling song” encourages the female to travel from a distance. When she is close the male sings a softer “courtship song.” If a competing male cricket gets too close, the first male sings a “rivalry song” to ward him away.
Tree crickets of the genera Neoxabea and Oecanthus also use songs to woo mates. These slender crickets crawl up tall grasses, trees, or other vegetation. They lift their paddle-shaped front wings in order to sing. This serves a dual purpose, as the upturned wings reveal a gland on the male’s back from which the female feeds.
Fun fact: the speed at which crickets chirp or sing varies with the temperature. You can estimate the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit by counting the number of chirps in 15 seconds and adding the number 37.
Cicadas also use songs to attract a mate. Cicada songs are very loud, especially when they hatch by the millions. Some sing during the day, while others sing at night.
Cicadas sing using a percussion instrument. They have a set of two true percussion organs located in the abdomen. A large muscle can be made to vibrate within a hollow cavity. A lid-like structure regulates the volume of the song.
8. Mexican Free-Tailed Bats
Males of at least one bat species, the Mexican free-tailed bat, use song to attract a mate. The males can change their songs so their female listeners do not lose interest, and they also use songs to warn away rival males. Interestingly, researchers listened to hundreds of hours of recordings in order to make this discovery!
Male mice sing at an ultrasonic level – at a pitch too high for human ears to hear. Female mice can hear it, though, and males use their songs to attract a mate. It has been observed that some mice seem better at singing than others – some songs attract many females, and others none at all.
An animal that sing is the toadfish. Toadfish have been described as “unusually vocal” animals. After all, you have likely never heard your pet goldfish speak or sing! Yet the male toadfish has a song that can be heard even outside of the water.
Toadfish use their song to attract a mate. The sound has been described as a “grunt or hum,” and researchers have discovered that every toadfish has its own unique song!