The Language of The Birds

Language is a strange concept in the natural world. What is it really? Whose language? Does it only consist of sounds, or perhaps body movements? Clearly many animals use scent for communication also - surely this means that the sense of smell plays an integral role in language. What we perceive of their lives is so miniscule we are wholly out of place to say we know anything at all.


We know that birds sing - those of us who still have our sense of hearing at this point can attest to this, especially on a morning when we'd much prefer to sleep in. They make a wide array of vocalizations throughout the day, and night in the case of nocturnal birds. But what do all these calls mean? What are they saying? Is it all mindless chatter, much like a midafternoon phone call on a lazy Sunday?


If we listen, if we pay attention, we will learn. I am still learning - and what I have learnt thus far is that there is much to learn. Being at home for the last year and a half has led me to a greater understanding of the birds we share our tiny space with. There isn't a huge diversity of species, but enough to keep it interesting. Some species would be seen every day, others would be seen once a week, and others still would let weeks pass before making an appearance. Any day now I'm expecting the return of the Yellow Warbler which left in March. She's been coming here for several years, enjoying the bounty of a chemical-free patch of trees.


When we listen to the birds, we come to realize that they make very different sounds from one another. This is how we can match certain sounds to certain species. Some people use this fact to assert that birds can all communicate with each other, as long as they are of the same species. But do you think it is somehow remotely possible, that birds can communicate across species? How does this happen, if they all make different sounding calls? How do mixed species flocks traverse the rainforest, feeding on one tree after the other as a collective? How do massive flocks of birds gather to migrate each year, if they are all speaking different languages? There must be something going on whereby a message can be communicated irrespective of the sound made.


We may never be able to fully decode what is being communicated, and that's okay. We need to accept that there is an endless stream of information being circulated constantly. And more importantly, that it all passes above our collective head. All we need to do is to start listening and observing. I'll give you a couple examples from my recent experience.


Those of you who follow me on Instagram may have seen that we came home a few weeks ago to find out that a stray cat had broken into our home to attack our cat. Since then, I have taken keen interest in finding any sign of any feline within our backyard - and then using any means necessary to let it know that it is not welcome. Cats are of course extremely stealthy creatures, thus presenting a problem. Aside from me sitting outside all hours of the day and night, how am I to know when a stray cat is in the area? As you may have guessed after reading this post, there is a sure-fire way: listen to the birds.


The House Wrens are typically the first ones to respond to the threat of a cat, as they are often high on the cat's menu. Once a cat is spotted, they would make a specific call - which would then alert the other birds in the area. All I need to do is respond when I hear that call. Interestingly, a few days after the attack, we were sitting near to the front of the house when a Smooth-billed Ani alighted in a tree outside our living room window and made a sharp, churring call. Immediately both myself and my cat jumped up - somehow we knew exactly what it meant. The Smooth-billed Ani flew to the back of the house and we followed. Sure enough, in our backyard was a white and grey stray cat, hunting lizards. A jug of water was used to provide a clear message which was duly received.


What this experience taught me was that it is certainly possible for a bird to convey a message not only to another species of bird, but to another animal altogether. My cat instantly knew what the ani's call meant. Unscientific, but I'm willing to talk more on it. Science is, after all, our attempt to explain reality.


There are different threats in the natural world, and therefore different alarm calls. Just as a cat elicits a particular response, so does the presence of another predator necessitate a separate, distinct set of vocalizations.


Being attentive to the goings-on among the members of avian society which surrounds my house has led me to discovering the hideouts of one of a pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls. Finding these tiny terrors means following the frenzied twittering of a number of tanagers, thrushes, and mockingbirds.



Once you understand that birds sing, you shall come upon the fact that different species have unique vocalizations, and subsequently within each species there are many different types of vocalizations for the wide variety of circumstances they may find themselves in. Furthermore, the same species can have calls which vary substantially depending on location. Yes, birds can have dialects and accents!


What I want us to remember here, however, is the ability to manage inter-species communication. Does a Purple Gallinule hatch and then have to learn the alarm call of a Striated Heron sometime in its formative period? There is no structured bird school where chicks all sit at a table and cram off the various calls of all other species along with their respective meaning. They all know, they all get the message - likely because the message isn't only in what one can physically perceive.

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