What is Bird Language? Why do I care what the birds have to say?
Have you ever woken up during a camping trip at 5am to a deafening chorus of bird song? Ever wonder what the birds are saying to each other and the other animals in the area? Birds are communicating with each other and other animals constantly. Interspecies communication benefits all bird species. Mammals pick up on what the birds are saying too. With each chirp, chip, tweet and song birds are communicating and you can learn to understand what they are saying.
Robins on the ground in the morning.
There are five voices of birds: song, companion call, territorial aggression, juvenile begging, and alarm. It can be overwhelming at first to try and distinguish different types of birds. So start by journaling the five most common birds in your area. Look up their sounds. Skip the corvid family members as they have a more advanced language. Corvid family members include crows, raves, rooks, magpies, and jays. It’s useful to know their voices but in the beginning they complicate your learning journey. If you do not know the bird you hear at your sit spot that is normal! Try and phonetically make reminder notes for yourself as to what you are hearing. For example, Red Winged Blackbirds sound like they are saying “overrrr heeeearrr” in three syllables.
Redwing Black Bird
Song is used to display territory. They often sound like a melody and last for a few seconds. This is the most common voice of birds you hear when doing research. Bird song is used to communicate to everything around that bird that they are in no danger and no predators are around. Male birds use song to let females know they have established a territory and can mate. The most common times to hear bird song is in the morning and evenings. Song is considered baseline behavior.
Companion calls are used for birds to keep track of one another. It is another way of making sure that things are safe even if the two or more birds cannot see each other. These calls are given off year round as their are always predators around looking for a meal. Typically, these calls are used when birds are feeding. When you see birds feeding on the ground letting off soft sounds to one another you can assume that it is safe for the birds to be on the ground feeding.
Territorial aggression happens when two birds are in conflict over where territory starts and ends. This voice is heard most often in spring and summer when birds are breeding. It is important for male birds to establish and protect their territory from other birds of the same species. Protecting territory lets female birds know that the male bird has desirable traits. At first this can seem like another voice, alarm. If two birds are fighting with each other and other birds in the area are in song or companion call you can pick up on the display of territorial aggression. When birds are in alarm all of them are alarming. When you hear alarm calls between two birds, song and companion calls going on it’s likely territorial aggression.
Robin male on male territorial aggression
Juvenile begging is done by birds who have recently hatched. They are literally begging incessantly for their parents to feed them. This voice is heard in spring and summer. Depending on the species of bird, they can have more than one brood of young per year. When baby birds are begging they are easily targeted by owls, hawks, weasels, and other predators. The predators are directed where to go because of the racket the baby birds are making. Juvenile birds have just begun to learn bird language. Sometimes when an adult makes an alarm call the juvenile birds do not understand what is being communicated. Juveniles begging and adults not making any noise can indicate the presence of a predator. Juvenile birds can tell you a lot about the natural world, even if they are clueless as to what is going on.
Alarm can be expressed in many different ways by birds. Some alarms sound like a racket of commotion, some are silent. Different alarms are given to different threats. Alarms can be simple or complex. In the beginning it’s best to just listen for alarms. It’s obvious when every bird in the area is making an alarm call that something is out of baseline. An alarm can also be complete silence or a bird watching from the top of a tree. As you practice bird language more you can start to pick up on subtleties in alarm calls.
Robin in Alarm pose
What does bird language do for you?
When you are out on the landscape and you would like to see animals bird language can be extremely useful. If birds are alarming at you when you are trying to take wildlife photos or hunting, do you think a deer is going to show up? Deer are constantly listening to bird language the softest alarms are the ones deer pick up on first. When you are at your sit spot, are the birds alarming at you? If you want to reflect nature back on itself figure out how to get along with the birds!
Five birds you can get to know in Montana:
Dark Eyed Junco
A great book and the inspiration for the post is What the Robin Knows by: Jon Young