Nightingale has best birdsong because of its complex brain, research finds

  • 113

No wonder they celebrated it in a song. The common is top of the feathered crooners, according to research highlighted on International Dawn Chorus Day that suggests the bird’s impressive vocal range is down to the composition of its brain.

The secretive bird, immortalised in the romantic 30s song A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, produces far more notes in its than other species, according to research carried out at the University of Bath and Cornell University.

Nightingales have a repertoire of 1,160 syllables, compared to 108 for the common blackbird and 341 for the Eurasian . Photograph: Alamy

The researchers studied three males from 49 different common species of songbirds from the US, Europe and South Africa, and compared the size and shape of their brains with the length and complexity of their songs. It was found that birds with larger “higher” brain areas in relation to “lower” brain areas were able to learn dozens of different notes. Higher brain areas control more cognitive and learning functions, while lower brain areas control more motor functions.

Species with larger brain areas that were capable of producing a higher repertoire of syllables included the common blackbird (108 syllables) and the Eurasian skylark (341 syllables). But their enthusiastic efforts are dwarfed by those of the common nightingale – a visitor to the UK from April to June – which has a repertoire of 1,160 syllables.

Species whose lower brain areas were larger relative to their higher brain areas, and can produce only a handful of syllables or notes in their songs, include the tree pipit, the sand martin and the yellowhammer.

The findings, first published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, are the first evidence that the capacity for learning in birds is closely related to brain structure, as opposed to overall brain size.

“This research is not only an extremely complex and interesting study of songbirds, it also gives us a unique insight into how brain development may contribute to human linguistic capabilities,” said Prof Tamas Szekely of the Biodiversity Lab at the University of Bath’s department of biology and biochemistry.

“The research gives us an example of the neural biology involved in language learning. It is possible to draw parallels between the ways in which bird brains have developed to learn complex songs and the way human brains have evolved to allow language.”

Neuroscientists have found that humans are able to speak and to set and achieve complex goals because of the prolonged development of higher brain areas, such as the cortex and the frontal cortex in particular.

These areas of the brain responsible for language are the last to mature and do not fully develop until humans are in their early 20s. In those bird species that have greater capacity for song learning, it is likely that their higher brain areas were built up over their lower brain areas as a result of sexual selection. Put simply, females prefer to mate with males that have more elaborate songs.

This article was written by  Jamie Doward and Amy Moore for the Guardian.

Vanished - Megascops Choliba by Jose Garcia Allievi

Discover hidden wildlife with our FREE newsletters

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.


Founder and Executive Editor

Share this post with your friends

  • 113

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
Леонид Воронов

Very strange that the article compared brain size with the quality of the song We his laboratory,in the Chuvash University, in Russia for a long time exploring the brains of birds at the cellular urovne. My calculate neurons, glia and complexes of major parts of the brain ptits. My found that singing birds greater number of neurons than nepoyuschih.

Frank Dröge
Frank Dröge

Euro Blackbirds are still my number one too of the most beautiful singing songbirds. Its sounds also so relaxed…..


In MA, I can identify the Mockingbirds who migrate vs the ones who do not: I recognize all the imitated birds in the non-migratory. Mockingbirds may be able on average to imitate 20 dif birds. But so can their cousin the Catbird, and also Blue Jays. Blue Jays do it for predatory purposes–to draw birds away and eat eggs, maybe even nestlings. Not sure about Catbird predation–though they also warn other birds of human presence. See my book, Birdtalk–also a FB page by that name. Blue Jays, for instance, can imitate Red Tailed Hawks.

Carolyn Bramwell

I would be curious to know how many syllables a mocking bird has.

Carolyn Bramwell

I do not lay claim to being a devout birder but I love them and have always been very impressed with the North American mockingbird. We have them every year and their medley of of notes amazes me. They seem to be big show-offs and will sing on and on if your watching or trying to sleep. : )

Jim Jam

But it doesn't have the best. It has the most celebrated–erroneously. To my (musician and composer's) ear, the Blackbird/ Merlo (that famously is "singing in the dead of night") is superior. the Nightingale sounds closer to ta Mockingbird, with snatches of notes, occasionally lovely ones. The Euro Blackbird's notes are most all beautiful, and usu in diatonic harmonic intervals like 1-3,1-5 (gliss up); or, glissando 3,1-3,1, 4*, 5* (where the * is forte); or, 4-3-1-4. These are all Merli I heard a week ago in Milan. I have also notated many in the UK the previous three weeks, often as… Read more »