A Bird Doesn’t Sing Because It Has an Answer, It Sings Because It Has a Song

Maya Angelou? Joan Walsh Anglund? William Hazlitt? Alfred Lord Tennyson? Jimmie Allison? Lou Holtz?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 2015 the U.S. Postal Service released a controversial commemorative stamp featuring the prominent author Maya Angelou which displayed the following words:

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.

Angelou’s best-known work was titled “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, and the expression above seems to be thematically connected; however, the words were not originally crafted by Angelou. Would you please explore the provenance of this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in “A Cup of Sun: A Book of Poems” by Joan Walsh Anglund, a popular children’s book author. The collection was published in 1967, and the following verse was printed by itself on a single page; note that the phrasing differed slightly from the words on the stamp because it used the identifier “he” instead of “it”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A bird does not sing because he has an answer.
He sings because he has a song.

The quotation was reassigned to the category Chinese proverb by 1984. In 1995 it was re-ascribed to someone named Howard Clemmons, and by 2001 it was reassigned to Maya Angelou. Detailed citations are given further below.

Speculations and pronouncements about the motivations of singing birds have a long and variegated history. The examples shown in this article will emphasize the internal wellsprings of avian desire instead of external goals.

Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located valuable citations for this topic and shared them with QI for this article.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Bird Doesn’t Sing Because It Has an Answer, It Sings Because It Has a Song


  1. 1967, A Cup of Sun: A Book of Poems by Joan Walsh Anglund, Quote Page 15 (also printed on inside front flap), Published by Harcourt, Brace & World, New York (Verified with scans)