The World According To Sound: How Do Songbirds Sing Two Notes At Once?

2:23 minutes

a simple illustration of two birds on two separate wires. one is singing to the other. the bodies are abstract and have intersecting wires in them
Credit: Shutterstock

Humans can talk because of their larynx, an organ shared by all mammals. Birds also have a larynx, but they use a different organ to vocalize: a syrinx. 

The syrinx is a complex and powerful voice-box. Unlike the larynx, it allows birds to do things like sing two different notes at the same time. That’s how some song birds can sing an ascending line and descending line simultaneously.

Even with all the possibilities of their syrinx, some birds have adapted other ways to “sing.” The Ruffed Grouse, for instance, uses its wings. The Wilson’s Snipe makes a song with its wings and tail. The Palm Cockatoo holds a stick in its beak and bangs it on a tree. The Magnificent Frigatebird inflates its throat sacs and beats them with its long beak. The Sage Grouse makes its song with special chest sacs.

Listen for these sounds on this week’s soundscape from the podcast and live event series, The World According To Sound.

This segment originally aired on the non-profit radio program BirdNote, and it is part of the live show that The World According to Sound is doing in collaboration with BirdNote.

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Segment Guests

Sam Harnett

Sam Harnett is the co-producer of The World According To Sound podcast. He’s based in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Before we head out of this hour, a soundscape from our friends at the World According to Sound Podcast.

SAM HARNETT: To talk, humans use a larynx, a complex vocal organ. Birds use a syrinx. But some species employ other body parts to make sound.


SAM HARNETT: Body part, wings. Species, rough grouse.


SAM HARNETT: Wings and tail, Wilson’s snipe.



SAM HARNETT: A tree banged with a stick held in a beak. Palm cockatoo.



SAM HARNETT: Inflated throats sacks, beaten and rattled with a long beak. Magnificent frigate bird.



SAM HARNETT: Finally, chess sacks. Sage grouse.


IRA FLATOW: These sounds are part of a communal listening series The World According to Sound is hosting this winter. This segment originally aired on bird note, and it’s part of the live show that The World According to Sound is doing in collaboration with them. For information about their 90 minute binaural events, visit theworldaccordingtosound.org.

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