Birds love to tell tales and chatter about what's going on around them at all times. They are vigilant and vocal beings, and naturalists know that by listening in, you can discover what everyone is up to — even when the "who" is completely out of sight. Aside from knowing if a male bird is defending a territory or if a pair have a nest nearby, you can also tell if a weasel is winding through the underbrush, if a coyote is trotting by, or if a hiker is a couple minutes down the trail from you — all from the way birds are chirping!
There is little about the world you won't know if you listen to the birds. But how do you find out what they're saying? There's really no mystery to it, and following these five steps will help you become fluent in bird.
1. Adopt a sit-spot
The first step in learning bird language is to spend time in one place getting to know the particular birds in an area very well. The trick to this is to adopt a sit-spot routine. By visiting one location on a frequent and regular basis, you'll begin to know birds on an individual basis.
You'll get a feel for each particular bird's preferences for perches, feeding behaviors, and attitudes about everything from competitors to predators. You might even begin to know birds by name. The birds will also get to know you, and you'll become less and less of a disruption to their activities. The more comfortable they are with you, the more about their lifestyle you will learn.
This is the start of listening in, the very beginning stage of learning the sounds of songs, calls, and alarms — and when and why they happen.
2. Focus on 5 common local species
Your sit-spot will likely have several species frequenting the area that you'll get to know. You can start to grow your aural and visual skill sets by spying on other common birds in your area. Species such as song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and of course the ubiquitous American robin are great because they're found in a wide range of places, even in urban parks.
Limit this list to five species, and get to know them very, very well. The better you know them, the easier it will be to recognize similar or different behaviors in other bird species as you expand your knowledge. Learn to look for "baseline behavior" or what birds do when they're comfortable and going about their day. Notice what they do when they're alarmed for different reasons. How do they vocalize, where do they perch or hide, how do they harass intruders, who counts as an intruder, and so many other aspects of behavior.
To note, crows and other species in the corvid family are brilliant, complex birds that seem to break all the rules. While they might be common in your area, don't lean on them for learning bird language. They'll do more to confuse and confound you than to clarify bird language. Sticking with songbird species will prove to be the most helpful.
Through steps one and two, you'll start to easily recognize what is baseline and notice when there's a change. That's when step three comes in.
3. Learn the 5 vocalizations
As you'll certainly have noticed during steps one and two, birds have many reasons and ways to vocalize. They don't simply sit on a branch and sing, but rather have a whole repertoire of sound to reflect what they're experiencing. As Jon Young, a life-long naturalist and an expert in bird language points out, these can be sorted into five categories:
- Songs — the signature sounds they use to defend territory and attract mates.
- Companion calls — the sounds birds use to communicate with each other during feeding or travel
- Juvenile begging — the "I'm hungry!" sounds that chicks and young birds make to get adults to feed them
- Aggression — the sounds made by birds defending their territory against other intruding birds
- Alarm — the sound made when expressing alarm about a threat.
Alarm sounds combined with behavior reveal a surprising amount of information. As Audubon points out, "Amazingly, birds can tailor their calls to respond to a wide range of threats. If a raptor's flying overhead, a songbird may make a short, quiet, high-pitched sound that won't carry far. This alerts nearby birds without revealing the caller's location. But if a raptor is perched, smaller species might try to project deeply and loudly to rally the troops and mob the intruder. Chickadees, for instance, utter a high seet when they see an aerial predator. If they encounter a perched owl, though, they’ll holler chick-a-dee! with an increasing number of dees depending on the severity of the threat."
These five types of vocalizations are explained in detail in Young's book, "What The Robin Knows," an essential read for anyone who wants to understand bird language. First and foremost, focus on getting to know these types of vocalizations from your five local species. They will help you in understanding when birds are in baseline behavior, as happens with the first four types of vocalization, or when something is shaking up the neighborhood. Then you'll move on to combining sound and behavior in step four.
4. Learn the 'shapes' of alarm
The sounds birds make reveals quite a bit, but the ways in which they move while vocalizing also reveal a good deal about what has the birds interested, alarmed or otherwise riled up.
In an article from Wilderness Awareness School, a leading school for naturalist education founded by Young, "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."
An alarmed bird's behavior takes on a certain "shape" depending on what the threat might be — whether it's coming from above or below, the type of predator and the type of urgency. Like the five vocalizations, Young outlined 12 shapes that bird alarms take when you're watching them in the field.
For instance, birds may "popcorn" or pop up from the brush when a ground predator is moving by, but they may "ditch" or dive into the brush if an aerial predator is passing overhead. A common alarm shape you can use to find owls is a "parabolic" alarm, which is when birds gather and swoop in to harass the owl until it leaves the area. Birders looking for owls or other raptor species use this alarm to their advantage.
Is it really possible to tell what animals are around based on the shape of an alarm? Yes, indeed it is. Here's a short video in which Young explains the difference between a dog and cat alarm shape.
5. Put it all together while watching birds
As you go about bird-watching, put these levels of knowledge and observation in to practice. And that's the key: practice! Whether you're in your sit-spot, staring at the activity of the backyard bird feeder, or camping off the beaten path, take note of what birds are around, what they're doing and how they sound. Bring all the pieces together to notice details and subtleties of the activity around you.
It takes a lot of time spent outside quietly watching, listening, taking notes, and putting the pieces together before you'll be competent at bird language. Once you are, however, the movement of many wild things all around you will be revealed.