These 5 backyard birds can teach you bird language

November 24, 2018, 11:29 a.m.
American robins can be our translators and teachers for bird language
Photo: Torin Sammeth/Shutterstock

Did you know it's entirely possible to know when there's a house cat walking down a path, or a weasel bounding through the thick brush, or even another person headed your way on the hiking trail? All this is revealed clearly and audibly by birds.

Learning the language of birds and the subtle (or not subtle) changes in body language that accompany their various calls can reveal the presence of other wildlife, such as bobcats, owls or hawks — and even the location of that animal. The information provided by birds has been used on a constant basis by other animals, including humans, since time immemorial as a strategy for avoiding predators or other danger.

As Popular Science reports, "For centuries, Native Americans have relied on so-called 'bird language' to learn the whereabouts of people and other animals that would otherwise remain invisible to the human eye... There’s no Rosetta Stone for bird language, but anyone with finely-tuned ears, keen observation skills, and plenty of patience can learn to translate songs into information."

With so many different species of birds out there, where do you begin? The best place is with those species you can see in your own backyard or nearby park.

The following birds are excellent study partners, especially since you're likely to have most if not all of these types of birds in your area. They're conspicuous, common and have a lot to say. This makes them ideal for learning the difference between a companion call and an alarm, a territory-establishing song or a begging call.

1. American robin: The second most abundant extant land bird in North America (and the one pictured above), you'll spot this familiar and iconic bird on most any lawn, park or meadow running around searching out worms or among bushes feeding on fruits and berries.

junco in fallen leaves2. Dark-eyed junco: A small ground forager, this species (shown at right) is likely spotted in your backyard garden or at a park near the shrubrows. You'll know it by the flash of its white outer tail feathers, which show distinctively while in flight.

3. Song sparrow: One of the most abundant species of native sparrows in North America. You'll find this medium-sized songbird in suburbs, parks and rural settings, and you'll likely spot them foraging on the ground or perched in low bushes.

4. House wren: Often harder to spot than other species listed here, the house wren is worth the effort to watch. It can be found in most suburban areas across the country. The rich song is heard throughout the breeding season, and since it nests in the vast majority of the county, it's a great teacher of bird language related to territory, companionship and raising young.

eastern towhee bird5. Towhees: Either an Eastern towhee (shown right) or spotted towhee is likely to be in your neighborhood, depending on where in the country you live. The distinct colors of black, white and rust help this species stand out among other common songbirds. They are more shy than the other birds (but can be found in urban parks), and while they'll require more patience to observe, you may learn more subtleties to bird language in the process.

Get familiar with these five birds, their various calls and behaviors and the reasons behind them, and you'll be well on your way to understanding the language of all birds you encounter and getting the inside scoop on what's happening in the world around them.

The book "What The Robin Knows" by Jon Young is a great resource for understanding the types of vocalizations birds make to indicate what's going on around them, and the body language associated with it. With enough study, you can know when a hawk is around, when a nest is active, when a male bird is staking out his territory and more. You'll also discover a closer connection with nature on the whole. Here, the book's author elaborates:

Inset photos: Shutterstock and MNN Flickr Group