Bird Language Demystified: Part I

Female Downy Woodpecker

Cheep—cheeep—cheeep—cheeep—cheeep—cheeep—cheep—cheeep—cheeep, I heard in the distance as I sat at my sit spot one day.  Cheep—cheeep—cheeep—cheeep—cheeep—cheeep—cheep—cheeep—cheeep.  The steady sound continued.

Curious, I emerged from my spot and wandered towards the source of the noise.  As I got closer, I noticed an adult female Downy Woodpecker swooping into the scene and ducking into a hollow cavity towards the top of an Alder tree.  Suddenly, a uproar of fast, high-pitched chirping noises coming from the cavity echoed throughout the forest edge: 

A Crow Calling

CHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEP!!! CHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEP!!!  CHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEP!!! CHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEP!!!

The chirping seemed relentless, though it settled down eventually.  Then out from the tree cavity flew the woodpecker, and that steady, less intense Cheep-cheep-cheep sound--similar to what I had heard from my sit spot--started back up again. 

Excitedly, I watched for a while as a distinct pattern revealed itself:  Steady chirping would carry on for several moments as the mama woodpecker was out foraging for grubs in the forest.  Then as the mama returned with food and swooped back into the tree cavity, an uproar of fast, high-pitched chirping from her babies would ensue.  After a few moments the mama woodpecker would fly back out, and the steady, less intense chirping would start up back again.  This pattern repeated itself over and over and over again, seemingly with no end in sight.

Indeed, it was a fascinating and mesmerizing phenomenon, similar to those that I’ve seen in past Spring times.  This scene never gets old to me, though.  I cherish witnessing (or simply just hearing) baby birds in their nest, begging for food while their parents are out foraging!  Had I not started visiting a sit spot regularly and learning about “bird language” from the folks at Wilderness Awareness School, it’s unlikely that I’d be as tuned into this sweet seasonal occurrence.  

Bird language refers to the vocalizations, behaviors, and body language that birds use to communicate with one another.  The interpretation and comprehension of bird language by humans is an ancient skill that indigenous people have used for thousands of years to survive and thrive in the natural world.  

Bird language was integral to primitive human existence, as it was historically used by our species to assist in avoiding dangerous predators, locating prey animals for hunting, and tuning into other food sources.  Bird language is still used by cultures that live primitively in remote parts of the world.  The San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, Africa is one example of an intact primitive population that uses bird language regularly for their survival.  The San people are true masters of bird language awareness.

These pigeons are looking pretty relaxed, don't you think?

Although most of us modern-day humans no longer rely on primitive hunting and foraging for survival, the study of bird language continues to be an incredibly valuable tool for connecting with the natural world, observing the nuances of shifting seasons, and tapping into the bigger picture of what’s going on in the landscape that surrounds us.  For those folks who are interested in learning more about bird language, this blog post is intended to scratch the surface on some of the basics. 

According to Jon Young, author of What the Robin Knows, there are five fundamental "voices" that birds use.  The first four voices are considered “baseline”.  The use of a baseline voice by a bird or a group of birds implies that those birds are generally free of life-threatening situations and are simply carrying out their day-to-day tasks in a relatively relaxed and carefree manner.  

Song, the first of the four baseline voices, is the most well-known bird vocalization amongst modern-day humans.  Most folks are familiar with the sound of a bird gloriously singing in the morning sunshine, greeting the day with enthusiastic melodies.  Birdsong is typically associated with male birds who are demonstrating their robust voices in efforts to attract a female mate and announce their territory to competing males.   However, female birds occasionally sing as well, perhaps to signify unity with their male mates.  Birdsong is more common in Spring, though certainly not exclusive to that time of year.  Some birds sing all year round.  Maybe they’re singing because they’re having a good day.  Or maybe they’re just really, really happy to be alive.  Either way, I think we can all agree that when a bird is singing, they are generally in a relaxed mood and free of worries.  Hence, baseline.

Young Robins begging for food

Companion calling is another baseline voice of the birds.  These refer to the vocalizations used by birds as a means of locating one another or checking in with their mates or the rest of their flock.  Simple “chirps”, “chips”, and other bird “chatter” in a relaxed kind of way generally indicates companion calling.  The birds are basically saying to each other, “Hey.  How’s it going?  Where you at?”  etc.  Again, baseline.

Juvenile begging is a third baseline voice, and my story above about the Downy Woodpeckers is an excellent example of this vocalization.  Juvenile begging is usually heard in the Spring.  Although the sound of baby birds begging for food may be interpreted as a distressed noise, relatively speaking it is not an indicator of disturbance.  Juvenile begging is just another fact of life for birds in the Spring, hence another baseline.

Territorial aggression amongst grebes

Territorial aggression is the fourth baseline voice.  The quintessential image that pops into my mind when I think of this voice is of two male Robins squawking, flapping, and shoving their wings into each other as they stake out their territories in the Spring.  This voice was previously dubbed “male-to-male aggression”.  However, female birds sometimes demonstrate aggression towards other birds as they assist their mate in defending their territory.  Territorial aggression may also be mistaken by those new to bird language as a disturbance from baseline.   However, when considering the bigger picture, the agitated vocalizations and behaviors that are demonstrative of territorial aggression remain exclusive to the few birds that are directly involved in the squabble.  Meanwhile neighboring birds are generally unaffected and unconcerned by the activity.  The situation is not life-threatening, therefore, this voice is also considered to be baseline.

Alarm is the fifth fundamental voice of birds.  It is a deviation from baseline, as it goes beyond the relatively relaxed and non life-threatening energy of birds carrying out their daily lives and into the realm of fear.  Bird alarms can be triggered by the presence of a predator on the prowl such as a hawk or a house cat, or a careless and destructive human, noisily tromping through the forest.  Bird alarms have the tendency to escalate and ripple throughout the forest, as demonstrated by distressed behaviors, postures, and vocalizations made simultaneously by multiple species of birds.  

There are various “shapes” and intricacies of bird alarms that give clues to their triggers, which I will be exploring in Part II of this blog post next Wild Wednesday, so stay tuned!  In the meantime, head outside to your sit spot and listen for some bird voices.  Even if you’re not familiar with the distinct sounds that specific bird species make, you can still reflect on what the energy behind each vocalization is implying.  Does the bird sound carefree, just going about business as usual?  Or does it sound worked up, agitated, and/or fearful for its life?  Report back to me about what you hear…