I’ve noticed a common block that shows up for pretty much everyone who studies bird language is a lack of practical knowledge about bird alarm shapes.
Alarm shapes are a fascinating topic because they give you instantly useful information about animals sneaking in the bushes and hiding spots around a forest.
So if you’re new to the study of bird language, you might be wondering – what is a bird alarm shape?
Bird alarm shapes are a way of describing how birds respond to different types of animals.
For example: Ground predators like coyotes or bobcats will cause different alarm shapes than aerial predators like hawks. You can identify different animals by the size, speed & location of alarm activity.
In this way – it’s even possible to identify the difference between alarms surrounding a red-tailed hawk, compared to alarms directed towards a cooper’s hawk. Or a coyote from a bobcat, or any other type of animal you might encounter.
This can often be done from very long distances, without any need to see the actual animal causing these alarms.
It’s amazingly fun and will lead to some mind-blowing encounters with wild animals.
The bird alarm shapes were created by Jon Young, and his book Animal Tracking Basics describes 12 alarm patterns that can be found in the field (it’s a great book that I highly recommend).
Some common examples of bird alarm shapes include:
- Bird Plows & Bullet: Birds scattering away from fast moving predators like a Cooper’s hawk.
- Ditching Behavior: Birds will suddenly ditch into thick bushes to hide.
- Sentinel: Birds posting at high points from a safe distance to get a better view.
- Tunnel of Silence & Oppression: The area of silence surrounding dangerous hawks.
- Parabolic Alarms: Localized mobbing behavior directed towards hawks, owls, cats & nest robbers.
- Popcorn Alarms: Sudden yet brief outbursts made in response to a fast moving ground predator like a coyote or fox.
These alarm shapes are great examples of how birds behave during different types of alarm situations.
Each “shape of alarm” will be associated with a particular body language, vocalizations and often varying numbers of birds from as few as one individual bird to as many as thousands.
It’s important to realize however, that conceptual knowledge of bird alarm shapes is completely different from being able to successfully apply the skill.
It does take a bit of practice to get the hang of this… and the way it appears in the field doesn’t always show up exactly like the “textbook examples”.
Where People Get Stuck With Bird Alarm Shapes
While most people enjoy the bird alarm shapes as a concept and framework for learning bird language, it’s actually pretty rare to find anyone who can consistently identify these patterns in the field.
You might be surprised to learn that even people who are already quite familiar with the basic concepts behind bird alarm shapes often struggle to talk about them from their own personal experience.
This is one of the ways I sometimes test new students for bird language knowledge.
I’ll ask you to share a bird alarm story from your own personal experience and describe what you noticed in terms of the alarm qualities.
With a few brief questions, it’s easy to identify whether someone is talking from personal experience vs repeating something they read in a book.
But you know the thing that really shocks me?
Even people who claim to be teaching bird language skills are frequently unable to accurately describe how bird alarms work in real life!
It’s not just beginners who struggle with this!
This is one of my big pet peeves when it comes to bird language because I believe if you’re going to be teaching something, you should at least be able to demonstrate the skill for yourself.
Plus… there are also people who have no idea what bird alarm shapes are, yet they have AMAZING bird language skills in the field.
All this to say – You need to go beyond the concept and gain some practical experience in order for bird alarm shapes to really be helpful.
So let’s look at some essential prerequisites you need to be absolutely crystal clear about before bird alarm shapes will make any difference for you…
1. Get Really Confident About Alarm VS Non-Alarm
A big part of making bird alarm shapes work depends on you being ultra confident about what is actually an alarm and what is not an alarm.
Most people simply cannot tell the difference unless they’ve had lots of practice with confirmed sightings.
Alarms are often described as loud calls made by songbirds in response to a predator.
But really there’s all different kinds of alarm calls, and a variety of ways that birds express alarm in different situations.
So if you’re calling everything that sounds loud or intense an alarm, then you’re going to have a lot of misfires.
Alarms can sometimes be surprisingly subtle.
They’re not always super loud and obvious, and I frequently notice that people are confusing territorial calls with alarms.
Even more common is for people to not even hear the alarms because they’re expecting something much more intense.
This typically happens without even realizing they’re mis-identifying bird alarms!
Sometimes things that sound subtle from a distance are actually much more intense when you’re standing in the middle of all the action.
In a nutshell – Here are 4 things you really need to know in order to confidently identify alarms vs non-alarms.
- The length of time a suspected alarm lasts for: There’s a huge difference between a 3 second bump in bird activity compared to 15 minutes of constant behavior changes.
- The pattern of movement associated with the behavior: Alarms will reflect the movement patterns of animals. So if you see a cat alarm – it will move like a cat. Coyote alarms will move like a coyote. If it doesn’t move like an animal, it’s probably not an alarm.
- The number of birds involved: The more birds are involved in an alarm, the more confident you can be – especially in the early stages of learning bird language.
- Isolated events vs repeating events: It’s much easier to learn bird alarms of animals that move through the forest in the same patterns over and over again, vs a random isolated occurrence.
Having confidence about alarm vs non-alarm is a topic that I cover in great depth on my online bird language video course because it’s so important.
You can also get a free introduction in the bird language adventure series.
If you’re new to bird language, it’s always recommended to get really good at identifying alarms in one individual bird first… which will then make it easier to spot the patterns in all types of birds.
In north america – you’ll probably want to start with the robin.
If you’re not in north america, try focusing on your most abundant member of the thrush family. In Europe this might be something like the European Blackbird or Amsel.
- Start by learning the 7 Robin Calls
- Then practice connecting those 7 calls with the 4 alarm cues for knowing alarm vs non-alarm shared above
2. Pay Attention To Alarm Shapes In Time
Another important thing to realize is that different alarm shapes last for different lengths of time.
For example: Some alarm shapes like ditching might only last for 1 or 2 brief seconds as birds quickly disappear into the bushes and get quiet.
Other alarm shapes like parabolic alarms, are almost characterized by their long duration of the behavior.
A good example is when you have something like an owl perched in a tree being mobbed, the alarms might go on for many hours without stopping – thus creating a stationary parabolic alarm.
These differences in timing actually factor into all the physical characteristics of an alarm like size, height, speed, etc.
This is precisely why aerial predators can cause much bigger alarm patterns than ground predators… It’s simply because they’re capable of moving much faster, and cover more territory.
But it also means that the “shapes” associated with aerial predators can sometimes be over in the blink of an eye, which adds a layer of complexity to tracking their movement.
If you’re not really paying close attention, you can completely miss big chunks of fast moving alarm sequences.
These differences in timing happen because alarm shapes are really just an intelligent response to whatever animal is causing the disturbance.
So the more you can put yourself in the mindset of the birds & animals themselves, the more these patterns will stand out as being plain old common sense.
3. Practice Empathy With The Birds
Since alarm shapes are simply a way of characterizing behavior of birds as they evade danger, it means there is a consistent logic behind how they act.
Their behavior is actually very similar to how you would probably respond in a life-threatening situation…
So many of your best insight about bird language will come from thinking about your own instincts when faced with a predator.
Imagine you’re walking through the jungle and suddenly you see a hungry jaguar looking at you from the bushes.
How would you respond in this situation?
Well, let’s look at your options for survival:
- You could run
- You could hide
- You could climb
- You could attack
- You could scream & yell
Each option would have an associated body language, movement pattern & possibly vocalizations that could be heard and interpreted from a distance.
Notice too – how each of these different options would elicit different responses from the jaguar.
Some of them would be more effective than others.
This is very similar to the dilemma faced by birds when there’s a predator hunting in the forest.
Birds will always take the best action they perceive to be available to them depending on the situation.
For example – Running away is probably a horrible idea when you’re dealing with a jaguar, but if you’re being chased by bees it’s the right thing to do.
It’s unlikely that you can take on a full grown jaguar by yourself, but if you have enough people, you can probably scare it away.
This is the whole reason why bird alarm shapes even exist. It’s just a reflection of the actual strategies employed by birds for survival.
And it follows a common logic based on things like:
- How many other birds are nearby?
- How fast is the predator?
- Is the predator hunting?
- Are you just protecting yourself, or do you have a nest too?
- Where is the closest hiding spot?
- Even – What’s the weather like?
This is why sometimes it’s helpful to just forget everything you know about alarm shapes and focus what it’s like to be an animal.
Imagine what it would be like to be a bird as that Cooper’s hawk comes blasting into the landscape…
Then imagine what it would be like to be a bird when a coyote comes trotting through…
If you can empathize with the behavioural differences between these two situations, it’s much easier to identify the associated bird alarm shapes.
It takes a bit of practice, but this is absolutely a skill that anyone can get the hang of.
Let me know what you discover and any questions you have!