When I was first getting into bird language, one of the toughest things was building my confidence about identifying bird alarms vs other types of calls that could be confused for alarms.
Bird language is a truly amazing and impressive skill to witness live in the field.
Unfortunately, it’s actually pretty rare to meet people who can consistently locate different types of animals by following bird alarm sequences.
A big part of the challenge is there just aren’t many good examples of what bird alarms actually look and sound like in a real life environment.
If you don’t have someone to point out why one particular call is an alarm while another similar call is not, then it can get pretty confusing.
So I decided to compile a small, but accurate collection of real bird alarm calls captured on film or audio.
My goal is to offer an accurate resource for bird language practitioners to get confident about what bird alarms are actually like in real life situations.
Use these examples to train your awareness and look for the same patterns playing out in your local area!
What Is A Bird Alarm Call?
Just before we get to the examples… it might be helpful to briefly talk about what is a bird alarm call?
Bird alarm calls are a vocal expression of fear or sometimes territoriality in response to predators.
These calls are often loud and intense, like being startled or scared into screaming/yelling, while other types of alarm calls can be surprisingly quiet and much more subtle depending on the type of bird, season & level of threat.
Knowledge of alarm calls will give you long distance warning about animals moving on a landscape, which is tremendously helpful for wildlife trackers & general nature appreciation.
An interesting thing to note is that different types of predators will produce different levels of alarm.
As a result, it’s possible to identify individual predators by the unique alarm signature they create.
For example: dangers coming from the ground (cats) will elicit a very different set of vocalizations and behaviors compared to dangers flying through the air (hawks).
The key to using bird language to interpret your environment is not only identifying bird alarms, but also reading the specific ways alarm calls are expressed towards different animals.
So let’s take a look at what you might notice in the field…
1. House Cat Alarms
One of the most common bird alarm situations you’ll encounter is not even caused by a wild predator… it’s your local neighbourhood house cat!
I wanted to start with this example because there’s a really good chance you have alarms just like this one happening in your own backyard.
In many places, cat alarms will be the most common type of bird alarm, yet almost nobody knows about it.
This amateur video managed to capture a particularly vivid example of some bird alarms directed at a house cat.
Check it out:
So here are some key features to notice in this clip:
- In this case the alarms are quite loud. This is a fairly common feature of cat alarms, especially with wild cats.
- The alarms are made by multiple birds simultaneously.
- It’s a constant flow of calls & chirps with no particular pattern other than constant mayhem.
- The birds themselves are perched up a few feet on a fence and all their calls are being directed towards the ground
- The activity slowly moves through the jungle following the cat, which we don’t actually see until the very end.
Now the thing that always blows my mind is you would expect that with the incredible loudness and intensity of these alarms, everyone would know something is going on.
But in actual practice, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who would confidently know how to identify this alarm.
Another important thing here is you don’t need to know what species of birds are alarming in order to know that this is an alarm.
This clip was taken in a part of the world that I’ve never been. I don’t actually know what kind of bird we’re hearing here… but it’s still super obvious that this is an alarm.
It’s more about the intensity of the vocalizations, and the pattern of behavior associated with it.
There are multiple birds, all alarming simultaneously creating this bizarre auditory rhythm where they all sound like they’re trying to talk over each other.
Alarms directed at cats are not always this intense. In fact where I live, they’re almost always much more subtle than this (I’ll share an example later).
It just depends on where you live and what kinds of birds are nearby.
2. Blue Jay Mobbing Alarm Calls
Here’s another great example of some equally frantic alarming behavior.
I want you to notice that even though this is a completely different species from before… the actual behavior & rhythm behind the calls is pretty much identical to that first example.
- Again the key thing to notice here is multiple birds calling simultaneously in a tight clump… almost like they’re all trying to talk at the same time.
- In the few moments when we can see the birds, their body language is identical to the previous example…
- The jays are just above the ground, hopping around almost frantically and looking downwards.
Blue jays can be tricky because they tend to be quite gregarious and loud with their vocalizations even when there are no predators nearby.
A good way to sort their alarms is by paying attention to how long the behavior goes on for.
If a group of blue jays are making noise for a couple minutes and then they fly away, they scatter and reconvene, or you notice some of them feeding – It’s much less likely this is an alarm.
If however, they continue alarming for 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes either focusing in a single spot and possibly moving slowly… it’s very likely this IS an alarm.
This is where we see that alarms are not so much about the specific vocalization as much as the complete pattern of behavior.
We don’t actually get to see the cat in this example, but based on the alarms it certainly sounds like it could be a cat.
Other possible culprits of an alarm like this could include a hawk or owl or even a large snake.
3. Crows Mobbing Barred Owl
Crows are one of the most popular alarm birds in the world.
This is mainly because they’re so loud and big that even non-naturalists find them difficult to ignore.
I get emails pretty much every day from people trying to understand these “crazy crow sounds” they heard from a tree in their backyard.
In many cases when they describe what’s happening, it’s obvious to me there was probably a hawk or owl hiding unseen in the branches.
These everyday examples from average people really make clear the practical applications of bird language to help you see more wildlife.
And that’s exactly what was happening in the following clip I caught of a Barred Owl hanging out in my yard, and the crow alarms that resulted.
Notice there’s a huge group of crows all cawing loudly and crowding in a big ball around the Owl.
Then when the Owl flies, they chase and continue mobbing. This is an extremely common type of alarm.
Crows are very common bird, with the ability to thrive in all kinds of environments, which means you’ll find them causing a raucous pretty much anywhere you might go.
There’s a good chance your first success with finding predators via bird language will come from local crows, so pay attention to them!
4. Crows Chasing Red-Tailed Hawk
I mentioned earlier that different types of predators will cause different alarms patterns…
I also mentioned that Crows are great teachers of how bird alarms change according to diverse levels of threat.
Because Crows are so loud and expressive, it amplifies all the different shapes and dynamics of alarm.
In this example, a big difference is that there are no trees to perch on, so the Crows have to adopt a completely different strategy for alarming & mobbing this hawk.
The more you can appreciate different ways that crows alarm in specific situations, the better you’ll be at knowing what animal is causing an alarm before you spot it.
Eventually you’ll be able to tell whether they’re upset at an eagle vs a Red-Tailed Hawk or a Barred Owl just by the location & alarm pattern.
One of the interesting things in this clip is to notice these Crows are dive-bombing from the air.
This is an extremely common behavior with Crows as they harass and try to chase away predators.
Finally towards the end of the clip, the hawk flies off and the crows continue to chase and dive-bomb on the fly.
They make loud aggressive calls as they chase.
If you spend a day watching crows in a visibly open landscape like this, you will almost certainly see this behavior play out many times.
5. Aerial Dive-bombing
Crows aren’t the only birds who will attack and chase predators on the fly.
Amazingly, sometimes much smaller birds will take on bigger threats with the same vigour and drive.
Check this one out.
This is a fairly common alarm that happens with hummingbirds and fast-flying songbirds.
Notice the U shaped flight curve that’s created from repeatedly dive-bombing.
In this case, the behavior is coming from a Swallow.
Whenever you witness aerial alarms happening, pay close attention to what other birds are present in the area…
If you listen into the trees, you might notice high pitched alarm calls moving across the forest as the threat flies overhead.
Then finally once it leaves, bird song and feeding activity will quickly return to the landscape.
6. Sparrow & Nuthatch Alarms At Hawk
Sometimes different types of hawks can cause dramatically different patterns of alarm…
Also different landscapes have different types of birds, which can cause different alarm responses that depend on the ecology of a landscape.
For example: A predator that might get chased by Crows at the ocean, might get mobbed by small songbirds in the forest.
Here’s an example of some alarms you might notice around a hawk in the forest:
The two main birds you hear alarming in this video are a sparrow and a nuthatch.
Notice the alarm itself is not actually all that intense sounding compared to some of the cat alarms we looked at earlier.
If this same hawk was cruising in a different ecology, or if it was actively intent on hunting, you might notice birds responding more intensely.
These subtle dynamics are a really important thing to realize about bird language.
If you really want to develop this skill to the fullest, you cannot just study birds… you also have to study how birds interact with the entire ecology of a place.
To me, this is one of the things that makes bird language so exciting. It’s this invisible world of interconnectivity that happens behind the scenes at all times.
With enough sensitivity, we can see deeper into the mystery and know what the birds are telling us.
A key thing to notice with sparrow alarms (and many small songbirds) is the consistent timing of the call.
If you didn’t notice it the first time, watch that video again and listen carefully…
This steady rhythm is what creates the almost frantic alarm sound as you add in more and more birds.
When you get 5 or 6 birds all doing this at the same time, it creates an unmistakable pattern that can be heard from quite long distances through a forest.
7. Alarms For Nest Robbers
One of the great things about bird language is that it’s a universal language.
This next video really goes to show that while the species may change from place to place, birds will still express fear in the same ways no matter where you go.
I have no idea what species of birds are in this clip… but even without knowing their identification, it’s incredibly obvious that this is an alarm.
If I were to make a guess about what’s happening here, I would say that the bird being scolded is some kind of nest robber that preys upon the eggs of other species.
This is a very similar alarm pattern to how songbirds will treat nest robbers like blue jays, crows and even rats in north america.
Sometimes people ask if sparrows can understand blue jay language and vice versa.
Well, the answer to that question is they already speak the same language.
It’s not like Sparrows have a language that’s any different from blue jays.
They may use different calls & sounds to express themselves, but if you look beyond the differences, birds all communicate the same things in pretty much the same way.
It’s all one language.
This means if you took a bird from north america and plopped it in the african savanna, that bird would already be able to understand the alarms.
Same thing for you too!
If you learn to recognize bird alarms in your backyard, you’ll be able to travel to a completely different part of the world and recognize alarms there too.
- In the above clip, notice how the smaller bird is almost dancing around the source of danger… flapping it’s wings and making some sharp scolding calls.
- Then after a minute or so, a second bird shows up and join in the action.
- At the same time you start to hear some steady and rhythmic alarm calls that sound almost identical to the sparrow alarms heard in a previous example.
This is a perfect example of how bird alarms work in all parts of the world.
It happens in forests, fields, deserts, marshlands, mountains… almost anywhere you find birds, there are predators trying to kill them.
And there we have the perfect opportunity for astute observers of bird language to gain insight about our surroundings with a very unique set of wildlife tracking skills that only requires the ability to listen and investigate.
This is what’s so cool about bird language skills! Sometimes you’ll even discover things about a place that even the locals don’t know.
It’s like having an extra sense that no-one else develops.
8 & 9. American Robin Aerial Alarm + House Cat Alarm
If you’re in north america, then one of the best birds to give alarm calls is the American Robin.
This is because they’re so darn common, and they have a huge range of vocal expressions that I outlined in my article on american robin sounds & calls.
This example was also recorded in my backyard, and it’s one of my favorites because I was able to capture two different types of robin alarms happening at the same time.
The first alarm is a high pitched dog-whistle type sound. This is the Robin’s aerial predator alarm.
Please be careful when listening to this recording because aerial predator alarms can sound pretty quiet at first…
High pitched sounds like this can be damaging to your ears if you turn it up too loud, so start low and only increase the volume slowly until you can hear it.
A lot of birds have a high pitched alarm call that they only use when there’s an aerial predator nearby because it helps to conceal their location.
High pitched sounds are difficult to locate, which enables birds to give alarm calls without revealing their location.
In this case, the alarm was made in response to a crow scoping things out during nesting season, which is a pretty common thing in my neighbourhood.
The second alarm is the soft and rhythmic tutting calls coming from a different robin nearby.
When I followed these alarms I found a house cat sneaking through.
I want you to really notice how much more subtle robin alarms are for house cats compared to some of the other examples we heard above.
It just goes to show that there’s a huge range of intensity even for the exact same type of animal that just depends on your individual environment.
These quiet tutting calls from the robin are extremely common all over North America. It took me forever to figure out that this was an alarm because it doesn’t even sound all that intense.
The important cue is the alarm follows that same repeating rhythm we heard in the sparrows, blue jays & other unknown birds from above.
When you hear this going on for a long period of time, keep your eyes peeled for a house cat! Just remember they can be very sneaky.
Improve Your Bird Alarm Skills…
Obviously we’ve only just scratched the surface of possible variations with bird alarm calls, but I hope these examples have given you a real appreciation for what’s possible when you get your eyes and ears tuned to what birds are saying.
If you’d like to really go deep with your bird alarm skills, check out my online bird language blueprint course.
It comes with the bonus Bird Alarm Masterclass that will help you tune up your ears for some really great adventures in the field!