Disclosure: Some links may be affiliate links. If you buy an item via links on our site, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
Birds are amazing for many different reasons, but one of the things that blows my mind is their ability to imitate sounds. These could be sounds from nature and other wildlife, from machinery, and even human words. But why are birds such great mimics, and what’s the point? Let’s find out more!
Why do Birds Mimic Sounds?
Most animals in nature make sounds, and they do this for various reasons. Of course, birds have some of the most complex vocalizations, including mimicry, but it makes you wonder why they do this.
Just like humans, birds have the need to communicate with other members of their species. One of the ways they can do this is through mimicry, and there are many things that they might be trying to tell one another.
For example, the lyrebird uses mimicry to attract a mate. Males of the species are known for their impressive repertoire, and it’s thought that the more complex it is, the more likely he will be to attract a female.
Sometimes birds will communicate impending danger by using imitative calls. Just look at the blue jay which can imitate the call of a hawk, signaling to other members of the species that a real hawk may be close by.
Parrots are very social animals and will use their ability to copy sounds as a way of interacting with one another. Within their flocks, they’ll come up with their own vocalizations to communicate. These sounds may also be used to establish territory.
Most birds aren’t very high up in the food chain and, as such, have a need to avoid predators. For bird species that don’t have much chance of surviving a predatory attack, mimicking the call of harmful birds is one way to keep predators at bay.
The thick-billed euphonia will copy the alarm call of other bird species when she feels that her nest is threatened. The benefit of this is that those other species will respond so there’s a greater chance of fighting back against the threat.
Sometimes, it’s survival of the fittest, but for the fork-tailed drongo, it’s survival of the smartest. These birds are known to mimic the call of others and even copy sounds made by meerkats to drive them away so they can swoop in and take all the food!
The cuckoo is one of many bird species that likes to lay its eggs in the nests of other birds. But it can’t just swoop in and lay the eggs; it first needs to distract the host parents, and it does this by mimicking a predator to scare it away.
Village indigobirds are another example of brood parasites that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. In this case, it’s the red-billed fire finch that plays host and in order to keep the parent’s suspicions low, the young village indigobirds mimic the call of the baby finches.
How Do Birds Produce Sounds?
Hearing some of the amazing sounds that birds can make certainly gets you wondering how they manage to do this.
Humans have vocal cords, and when air passes over these, it forms sound. Depending on the tension of the vocal cords, these sounds can be of varying pitches. The way things work in birds is slightly different because, unlike humans, who only have one vocal passage and one set of chords, most birds have two.
This physical feature in birds is called the syrinx, which enables the bird to make vocalizations. But instead of vocal cords, like humans, birds have membranes that move back and forth as air passes over them. So, while the concept is similar, the mechanics are slightly different.
Having a double system like this means that birds are able to produce more than one sound at once; something that (most) humans can’t do.
Parrots are among some of the best mimics but their physiology is slightly different from other birds in that they only have one syrinx. This is actually more similar to the human anatomy than it is to other bird species that typically have two.
Master Avian Imitators
When most people think about mimic birds, they imagine parrots. While some of these birds will feature on this list, there are many other species that are just as adept when it comes to copying sounds.
1. Superb Lyrebird
The superb lyrebird, a songbird from Australia, is perhaps one of the most incredible mimics in the world. Its repertoire is far beyond anything of any other avian species, and it’s even been known to mimic things like chainsaws that it hears cutting trees in the bush!
One of the main reasons that these birds use mimicry is during their mating rituals. Along with elaborate courtship dances, the lyrebird will use its impressive collection of audio sounds to attract a mate. But what’s really impressive is that the males don’t only use sounds they’ve heard but are also able to ‘compose’ their own unique songs from these sounds. By this token, no two lyrebirds sound the same!
As many as 80% of the sounds made by these birds are imitations, including many made by other bird species. And some of these vocalizations are so close to the originals that other species cannot differentiate between a lyrebird and one of their own!
2. European Starling
One could be forgiven for thinking that the starling was a regular old backyard bird with nothing remarkable about it. So, it may surprise you to learn that the European starling is actually one of nature’s greatest mimics.
In captivity, these birds have been taught to copy a whole host of human sounds. But even in the wild, they’re easily able to mimic other birds and wildlife, such as frogs. Even when they’re not copying other sounds, starlings are incredibly vocal birds that usually sing all year except during their molt.
3. African Gray Parrot
The African gray might not be the most vibrant or elaborate-looking parrot on the planet but it’s certainly one of the most intelligent. These birds are able to copy a whole host of sounds including human speech and have been demonstrated to understand the meaning of certain sounds. Studies have shown that companion parrots are easily able to recognize words in context.
Compared to other parrot species, African grays have an astonishing ability to recall words. On average, a single bird could have a repertoire of up to 60 words, whereas something like a cockatoo or macaw would have only half of this vocabulary.
But there is one African gray that holds the record for retaining the most vocabulary. He has remembered around 1000 words!
4. Northern Mockingbird
The northern mockingbird is a common species throughout North America, from Canada down to Mexico. These birds are among some of the most impressive mimics, being able to copy as many as 200 different bird songs, including the northern cardinal.
The sounds created by these amazing mimics are incredibly close to the originals, but they’ll often flit between songs, so this is a great way to determine whether you’re listening to the real deal.
But if it wasn’t enough that they’re so talented at mimicking other birds, it might impress you to learn that the northern mockingbird also commonly copies sounds like trains and alarms!
5. Australian Magpie
As you can tell from its name, this species is native to Australia, however, they have been introduced to New Zealand, where they’re considered an invasive species.
But invasive or not, there’s no denying that the Australian magpie is a clever bird when it comes to the sounds it makes. Just like the northern mockingbird, this species is adept at copying the sounds of other birds, including the ringneck parrot and even the incredibly unique sound of the kookaburra!
While not common in the wild, research has shown that captive Australian magpies are able to learn to copy human vocalizations. What’s more, these birds come together to create a glorious chorus with a flute-like song that has earned them the nickname flutebird.
6. Common Hill Myna
Native to parts of Southeast and East Asia, the common hill myna or mynah bird is an impressive mimic. First thing in the morning and just as the sun is going down, the air is filled with the shrill sounds of this avian species.
But while it might sound loud and brash when singing its own song, the common hill myna can quickly move into copied sounds that are very much like the originals. Plus, thanks to special muscles, these birds are able to imitate human sounds and may even mimic other wildlife such as primates as well.
Mynah birds don’t have quite as wide a range of sounds as something like a lyrebird or African gray parrot. But each individual can produce up to 13 sounds. What’s really interesting is that birds within the same vicinity tend to exhibit the same sounds as one another.
7. Gray Catbird
Found in North and Central America, the gray catbird looks pretty unassuming. But once you hear the sounds it makes, you’re sure to realize what a fascinating species this is. As you might imagine from its name, one of the key sounds this bird makes sounds just like a meowing cat.
For the most part, the sounds of these birds go unnoticed, but when paying attention, you’ll quickly see that they’re capable of mimicking a ton of other bird species. However, unlike some of our feathered friends, the gray catbird doesn’t quite have the knack of making themselves sound exactly like the original. Still, it’s pretty impressive!
8. Blue Jay
If you live in the eastern part of North America then you’ll be very familiar with the blue jay, which is a common garden bird. But did you realize what good imitators they were?
While they may be small songbirds, blue jays can copy the calls of much bigger raptors. Most notably, they’re known for imitating the hawk, and while the sound isn’t utterly convincing, it’s enough.
While scientists still aren’t 100% certain as to why these birds mimic raptors, there are a couple of theories. It could be that they’re trying to imitate these large birds to trick other birds into thinking there’s a nearby threat. Alternatively, it could be that the blue jay behaves this way to warn other members of the species that there is a bird of prey close by.
9. Brown Thrasher
The brown thrasher is another bird we commonly see in the United States, although they do migrate for parts of the year. These birds are some of the most versatile singers in the avian world, with individuals having up to 3000 songs in their repertoire!
Not only are they musical maestros but brown thrashers also have a program of other sounds that they imitate. These largely include imitations of other birds, but they’ve also been heard to make kissing, smacking, and whistling sounds.
10. Red-Capped Robin-Chat
Found in the subtropical and tropical forests of Africa, the red-capped robin chat is another bird that likes to imitate its avian relatives. These small birds have the ability to imitate as many as 40 other bird species and do so at a remarkable speed. Among the birds it might copy there are the eagle, the rooster, and the guinea fowl and they do a pretty convincing job of it!
What’s super impressive is that some red-capped robin chats have been seen to respond to human whistles, making copied sounds back which shows their ability to learn.
In addition to their imitation calls, red-capped robin chats have their own flute-like song which they use for communicating. They typically live in pairs in the thicket so this comes in handy when foraging for food.
11. Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo
Not only does the greater racket-tailed drongo have the ability to mimic as many as 35 other bird species, but it’s also capable of imitating amphibians and mammals! It’s thought that it does this because it is mimicking predator sounds.
Found in the Himalayan regions of Asia, the greater racket-tailed drongo often uses its mimic calls when hunting in large mixed flocks. What’s more, these birds have an interesting repertoire of whistles, bell-like sounds, and metallic vocalizations, which they use when communicating with one another.
12. Pied Butcherbird
Another Australian bird species, the pied butcherbird doesn’t look all that different from the magpie. And just like the magpie, it’s pretty impressive when it comes to mimicry.
They’re incredibly good at copying other bird sounds but like the lyrebird that I talked about earlier, the pied butcherbird also makes extremely convincing mechanical sounds, such as alarms and phones. They’ve even been known to copy the sound of a dog barking!
Even their natural song is beautiful, with a series of almost musical instrument-like sounds. One wildlife fan even described the song as an oboe concerto!
Why Do Parrots Mimic Humans?
It could be relatively easy to see why birds mimic other forms of wildlife, but when it comes to making human sounds, the reason behind why they do it can be something of a head-scratcher.
However, it all comes down to socialization since parrots are highly social birds that live in huge flocks in the wild. When in these flocks, parrots will develop sounds and vocalizations as a way of communicating with others. This is something of an instinct that they don’t automatically lose when in captivity.
In the wild, these birds will mimic one another, but when they’re kept as pets, the birds only have their owners to mimic so, that’s exactly what they do. Some experts even suggest that parrots will copy humans as a way of fitting in and becoming part of the ‘flock.’
On top of that, your parrot probably just wants your attention, and by making sounds, this can be easily achieved. When a parrot is trying to capture the attention of its owner, it might couple the vocalizations with movements or physical contact.