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The Organ That Gives Birds Their Voices | Common Loons Are Pop Music Icons

Science Friday

06-06-2024 • 18 mins

Scientists are studying birds’ unique vocal organ, the syrinx, to better understand its evolutionary history. Also, the eerie calls of the common loon have been heard in songs by Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey, and more.

The Organ That Gives Birds Their Voices

Have you ever wondered how a bird sings? Or made some of their less melodic vocalizations, like squawks, trills, or chirps? It all happens in the syrinx, a vocal organ unique to birds. Reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, including humans, use their larynx to produce sounds.

The syrinx varies widely between bird species and there’s still a lot that scientists don’t understand about how it works and its evolutionary history. Better understanding the syrinx of living birds can help scientists get closer to figuring out what dinosaurs sounded like. (No, the dinosaur sounds in “Jurassic Park” are not scientifically accurate.)

Guest host Arielle Duhaime-Ross talks with Dr. Julia Clarke, professor of vertebrate paleontology at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas, Austin, about her recent research studying the syrinxes of ostriches and hummingbirds.

Common Loons Are Pop Music Icons

For decades now, one music star has managed to show up on tracks spanning multiple genres and appear alongside many famous artists—while also remaining bafflingly under-recognized. Any guesses?

Of course, we’re talking about none other than the common loon—a waterbird with striking red eyes and black-and-white checkerboard plumage. This bird’s calls have been used in songs by artists like Michael Jackson, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Doja Cat, and Lana Del Rey. They’ve also been used as a sound effect in Hollywood blockbusters like “Harry Potter” and the TV show “Game of Thrones.”

So how did this bird’s call become a regular in everything from hip hop and EDM to pop music? A story in Audubon Magazine dove into this, and guest host Arielle Duhaime-Ross talks with author Maddie Burakoff, an associate editor at Audubon.

Transcripts for each segment will be available after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

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