Listening to birds and watching bird behavior allows us to become aware of animal activity, to sneak up on wildlife or unsuspecting friends, and to enhance our senses. In my year at Wilderness Awareness School's Anake Outdoor School, in Duvall, Washington, I explored the school's teachings about birds, bird watching and awareness. I'll share some of bird language basics with you. Soon, you'll be able to tell when a hawk is about to fly out of the trees or when a deer is sneaking away from you.
What is bird language?
Birds make noises and behaviors to communicate with each other, and we can learn to understand what they are "talking" about. Patience and observation are really all it takes, even though a field guide will come in handy. You don't have to identify birds in order to understand their voices. As you get to know the birds around you, you will be able to intuit their language, the same way you can tell when a close friend is happy or upset just from how that person answers the phone.
You might not need to know the names of the birds, but you should know something about their habits in order to understand their voices. The birds with the most to say about other animals traveling on the ground are the birds that live on the ground. A tiny warbler or chickadee, up in the treetops, might not care if a coyote is traveling underneath it, but a song sparrow will certainly notice when a coyote is passing through.
The predator is traveling right through the home of the song sparrow in the thicket!
The general rule is that small brown birds that live near the ground will tell you the most. There are a lot of birds out there, but don't start out by trying to learn them all. The perching birds, known as the passerines, have the most reliable voices. These are birds like sparrows, wrens, or blackbirds. In contrast, woodpeckers, herons, ducks, or hawks are not passerines.
Here's the short list of helpful birds:
American robin (Turdus migratorius), song sparrow (Melospiza melodia), dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), a local wren, and a local towhee. If any of these birds doesn't live near you, follow the general rule about finding perching birds that forage on the ground. The first owl or house cat that ventures into your backyard will show you the birds to pay attention to.
You will have to gauge the "trustworthiness" of your birds. The species above are reliable, but jays or crows, in the corvid family, can lead you astray with their seemingly random squawking. I snuck up on a yelling jay family, only to hear them shut up completely when they caught sight of me. I still think they were pulling my leg.
Despite their unpredictability, you can use the bird behavior of crows and jays to find owls and hawks. Corvids seem to have a special dislike for these predators, so a stationary mob of noisy crows might indicate a raptor.
When you have found your five reliable ground-feeding passerines, you can start to distinguish the vocalizations they use in different situations. It's the same concept as being able to tell the difference between someone yelling for help and someone singing.
Here are the five basic "voices" that birds use, as Jon Young outlines in his "Language of the Birds" recording. Most bird noises will fall into these categories. The first four are baseline, or business-as-usual voices, and the last one is about alarm.
Song is the best-known noise that birds make. Male birds sing a lot in the spring, and sometimes all year round. If a bird is relaxed and safe enough to be singing, there probably aren't any predators nearby. The song is the vocalization usually heard on bird identification tapes, and you may see the bird singing from an exposed perch.
Companion calling is the second voice of the birds. These are the sounds that birds make to keep track of their flock mates or "spouses." Usually it's a dialogue of soft chips or tweets. Translated into human speech, it might be akin to the calm murmur of voices in a restaurant. The rhythm is conversational and regular. You might see a pair of towhees flicking their tails periodically as a visual signal to each other, or a flock of robins moving in unison, making soft whistles.
The third voice is juvenile begging, and it's usually heard in the springtime when baby birds have turned into hungry teenagers. The parents feed them, because if they don't shut these babies up, a predator will hear them. While the young bird's cries may sound strangled and horrible, that's just the sound of another juicy morsel being shoved down the hatch. Most baby birds flutter their wings and open their beaks wide as they plead for food. The repetitive whining may be obnoxious, but don't mistake it for distress.
The fourth voice, aggression, also sounds gruesome but it does not indicate a predator in the area. You might have observed two male robins or mockingbirds staking their claims to opposite sides of the yard. There is plenty of flapping and squawking, but other birds don't pay attention. Sometimes female birds will help their mates defend territory, so this bird behavior isn't confined to males.
We're about to hear the fifth voice, alarm. Look at the lawn, the park, the forest, or the field where all the birds are singing and feeding. That is baseline bird behavior. Now a hawk flies over, a jogger comes through, or a bobcat creeps from behind a bush. The birds cross from comfort into distress, and you will notice behavior that is not like their relaxed feeding or preening. The actual noise the bird makes may not be very different from its companion call, but the emotion behind it will feel agitated rather than calm.
A song sparrow might be up out of its thicket, chipping nervously. Maybe a flock of robins will squeal and dive for cover, telling you that a sharp-shinned hawk is on the prowl. Certain behaviors, like wiping the bill on a branch, can also signal agitation. Recognizing baseline is essential for being able to recognize alarm.
Different animals and events will cause different alarm sequences, so it can be difficult to determine what each bird is actually responding to. Your common sense is the best guide for deciphering the birds' reactions. For instance, a predator on the ground will cause birds to move up farther than that predator can jump, while an aerial predator like a hawk will cause the birds to dive down into cover.
With practice, and knowledge of your local wildlife, bird language will indicate what kind of predator is causing the disturbance. Think of how each kind of animal moves. A bobcat or housecat that slinks along will collect a little following of alarmed birds. The sound of the alarms will travel slowly through the forest as some birds join in and others leave as the cat moves through their territories. A fast-moving dog or coyote will cause birds to "popcorn" up, just a few birds at a time popping up and alarming. A perched owl or hawk will draw a mob of calling birds that stay in one place. A bird-eating hawk, like the sharp-shinned, Cooper's or goshawk, will cause a dramatic duck-and-cover disappearing act.
Interestingly, bird responses to humans seem to vary. If you are using bird language to detect approaching humans, you must factor in the habitat and the attitude of the person. Are you in a park where the birds are used to people? Is the person stomping along in a bad mood, or strolling without a care in the world?
I tried to move quietly and sneakily out to my bird watching spot, only to hear towhees and robins make unflattering comments about me—"Who is this person sneaking around here?" Now I stroll in whistling a tune, and the birds seem more relaxed. After all, I am exhibiting baseline behavior.
It's not uncommon for birds to be quiet around feeding deer, but then start to alarm when the deer begins sneaking away. Perhaps the deer is sneaking away from you as you are coming down the trail, so listen for these peripheral or secondary bird alarms. The more you can expand your hearing and awareness, the more you will be able to see and experience.
Once you tune into the attitudes and nuances of bird behavior, you will often be warned when animals are nearby. This is how deer and other wary creatures use bird language to hide from approaching humans. Sometimes it's the other way around! I was sitting in my yard early one morning, and heard Spider-eater the winter wren give an annoyed twitter. The pair of song sparrows (Big Gray and Tan-stripe) chimed in a moment later. Something was moving towards me, and moving fast! I barely had time to pull my camouflaged blanket over my face, leaving a peephole so I could watch the big coyote trot past, thirty feet away.
If you are intrigued by these stories, try some of the activities that I find helpful when learning about bird language.
I always strive to develop an ability to recognize individuals. Dr. Doolittle (the character in the old books I read as a kid, not the recent movies) said that if you saw two sparrows in a tree, and could recognize the same two sparrows the next day, you were observant enough to learn to speak to animals. The surest route to understanding birds is to spend time each day at the same place—a place that has birds around. A backyard is perfect. Draw a map of where you see regularly see the same birds. In my backyard, Chirpy the wren always sings from the south ridge, but Spider-eater sings from the north ridge. Springtime makes territory boundaries and songs clearer, so that's a good time to get out there and use your ears.
You might find a place to position yourself along a human trail to listen for the birds to tell you when someone is coming by. Soon you will be able to tell if a hiker, jogger, rider, or cyclist is about to come around the corner. I wouldn't try to win any bets about guessing it, though! Birds have a talent for humbling us. It's also best not to scare any humans.
If you are listening to bird CDs, focus on the birds of your area. Listen to them over and over, and act them out. How does the robin run across the yard? How does the blue jay flip its tail around? How does the great horned owl turn its golden-eyed head? Put yourself in the bird's feathers and you will be able to understand bird language.
This is a brief overview of a complex topic. Whether you simply notice more birds than you did before, or learn every bird in your neighborhood, prick up your ears at the world of sound that surrounds us. Birds are bound to lift your spirits with the mysteries and delight of bird language.