Have you ever wondered whether all those tweets, chirps, tuts & whistles coming from the tiny mouths of birds have meaning?
If you like to spend time watching birds, then at some point you’ve probably wondered what birds are actually saying with all those calls & sounds… in other words, do birds have language?
This is a really fun question that I’ve spent quite a few years investigating… and luckily, the answer is pretty definitive!
Yes, birds absolutely have language. They use both body language and specific vocalizations to communicate with other birds, attract mates, stay in contact with family, announce/defend territory, and gain advanced warning of nearby predators & danger.
Not only is it very clear that birds do have a language, but it’s actually fairly simple to learn the basics of what these birds are saying.
So today – I’d like to share some simple examples of how bird language really works.
We’ll look at a variety of common calls & sounds from different types of backyard songbirds, and unpack the meaning so you can recognize it in the field.
Learn these basics, and you’ll be able to quickly determine whether a bird is trying to attract a mate, or setting up territories, or even protecting it’s nest from some robbing blue jays!
Understanding The Language Of Birds
Just before we get to the examples… there’s a couple of common misconceptions about bird language we really need to clear up first.
It’s important to understand that the language of birds does work a little bit differently than human languages.
So stick with me here, and it’ll really help in the long run…
One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is thinking that birds communicate with “words” the same way humans do.
This is a common mistake because most people associate language with the actual nouns, verbs & adjectives used to communicate things verbally (German, English, Polish, etc).
Sometimes people actually think birds are out there speaking in a “bird version” of a human language, having conversations about life & politics & philosophy.
But while birds definitely have a lot to say, they really aren’t using words to do it.
Birds Communicate Non-Verbally!
Bird language in reality, is what we might call a “non-verbal” language.
This means that rather than having actual words and abstract concepts that are represented symbolically… Birds communicate in a much more concrete and sensory way.
One of my own bird language teachers explained it kind of like this:
Imagine you’re in a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language or understand anything the locals say. Then suddenly you see a huge mob of people all screaming & running for their lives…”
Notice that even without knowing the specific words of their language, you can still understand when someone is scared, or angry, or feeling safe by the non-verbal messages being sub-communicated.
If this is still unclear, just think about all the different ways you can say “hello” to someone.
It’s possible to say “hello” with undertones of love, anger, fear or accusation. It’s possible to say hello and not even mean it!
The word “hello” is the verbal part of communication… but there are an endless number of ways to say the word “hello” with different feelings & tones that can completely change the meaning.
These are the non-verbal parts of communication, and in most cases, how you say something is vastly more important than what you say.
This is especially true with birds because 100% of their communication is non-verbal!
So in order to understand the language of birds, we need to look beyond the words to the underlying sub-communication.
It’s all about the subtle things like:
- Eye contact
- Personal space
- Tone of voice
- Overall energy & emotion
- Body language
These are the non-verbal aspects of language that typically happen beyond conscious awareness. If you want to understand the language of birds… this is what you really need to focus on.
So what does this actually look like in the field?
How do you recognize the basics of bird language?
Let’s Look At How Birds Communicate…
The good news is since birds communicate non-verbally, you don’t need to master a whole new language in order to understand what they’re saying.
In the same way you can recognize when someone is scared without speaking their language, you already have a natural intuition or instincts about the non-verbal messages birds are conveying.
The vast majority of what birds are saying fits into just a handful of basic categories that can be easily understood through process of elimination.
Each message is associated with it’s own body language, and often specific calls & vocalizations that help you identify what’s being communicated.
If you can learn these 4 basic categories, then you’ll be well on your way to really understanding bird language!
Let’s explore these together…
1. Contact Calls
Contact calls are soft, back-and-forth sounds that birds use to stay in touch with their mate, and sometimes other members of a flock.
These are also sometimes called feeding calls, companion calls, or flock calls.
Now the main thing to know about these vocalizations is that they only occur between friendly members (often mates) of the same species.
The sound itself is typically fairly soft, sweet & quiet. But this does vary a little bit depending on the species.
Some bird species have companion calls that are almost inaudible, while others are quite a bit more obvious.
Let’s hear an example of a song sparrow companion call.
You will notice in this recording there are a few other birds singing in the background, but the sparrow is that soft, high pitched ticking sound.
Now let’s check out a great example of a Chickadee Companion call.
Notice how soft, quiet and rhythmic their contact calls are when you hear it alone. It’s actually a bit rare to hear this exact pattern with Chickadees though.
Chickadee contact calls are typically a lot more energetic & noisy compared to this example, especially as the flock size gets larger.
When it comes to Chickadees, most people focus on their “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call, but that sound is actually used in all different situations including feeding, territorial aggression, and alarms.
The “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call not actually a companion call, and serves a more diverse purpose.
Robins also have a contact call, but they only use it during certain situations.
Usually when you see robins feeding on the lawn, they’re pretty much silent and instead they use visual cues to stay in touch.
But if you spend a lot of time watching robins you might eventually get to hear their quiet companion call.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to understand bird language is focusing too much on the sounds, and not enough on what the birds are actually doing.
The easiest way to confidently identify contact calls is actually by looking at the context of behavior associated with the sound.
If you see birds feeding on the ground, or up in the tree branches making rhythmic, almost timed calls that go back and forth between individuals. This is very likely a companion call.
These calls are extremely common, but one of the most subtle… making contact calls one of the first messages you should really learn to recognize across the most common bird species.
2. Bird Songs
Songs are quite a bit more variable than calls. They tend to be longer, more melodious phrases of sound, or complex sequences of trills & whistles.
I explained the difference between songs & calls in pretty good depth in this video with sonograms so you can see and hear the difference.
This fundamental difference between bird songs VS bird calls is probably the most basic distinction you’ll ever learn in bird language because it gives us two very neat categories that are completely different and instantly recognizable by beginners.
Songs are used for two main reasons:
- Males will sing to attract a mate in spring
- Songs are also used to mark territory
Here’s an example of robin song:
Here’s a sparrow song:
And a Junco song: The Junco is that bird trilling in the foreground, but you can also hear a robin singing further away.
At more advanced levels… You’ll discover there are quite a few more subtle dynamics within bird song that can help you determine the precise reasons why a bird is singing.
- Some birds have subtle variations in their songs that can tell you about the age or dominance of a bird.
- Some birds will have different songs that they use in the morning VS the evening.
- Some birds will sing while flying a circuit around their territory, and others will pick a prominent spot where they can see their home range.
For now, all you really need to focus on is identifying song in whatever form it shows up.
There are however, a couple other types of bird calls that will be essential to learn if you want to know what birds are saying.
3. Territorial Calls
Territorial calls are short-lived bursts of aggression between neighbouring birds. They are often quite loud & intense vocalizations, sometimes associated with a sudden flurry of chasing or fighting.
In the beginning, it’s very common to confuse territorial aggression with alarm calls, but if you feel into the emotion behind the call, you’ll recognize the non-verbal message is actually anger or defensiveness/territoriality.
You know how you can tell when someone is feeling angry or defensive just by hearing their tone of voice?
That angry tone of voice is really what you’re listening for here…
Here’s a robin territorial call:
Territorial calls can sometimes be quite tricky to get the hang of.
You’ll notice these calls sound very similar to alarm calls, but the actual meaning is completely different.
Very often the only discernible difference between territorial calls & alarms is the context.
Territorial disputes are often associated with a suddenly flurry of chasing other birds away, while alarms are associated with predators.
You’ll notice that when sparrows or Juncos are being territorial, they make a huge fuss… but all the other birds are just going about their usual activities.
And this is why it’s so important to not just rely on sound. You need to use all your senses and think like a bird.
4. Alarm Calls
If territorial calls are angry and defensive, then alarm calls are much more an expression of fear or surprise.
Here’s one of the biggest lessons to learn about bird language:
A huge amount of bird language is entirely devoted to the purpose of avoiding predators…
What we have to always remember is that while they may live just outside the windows of our safe homes, birds spend their entire lives in a constant survival situation.
Just imagine being a tiny little bird surrounded by all different types of cats, hawks, owls, weasels, charging dogs & hiking humans.
These life & death dangers is a huge part of why bird language even exists to begin with.
By listening to neighbouring birds, it’s possible to detect the approach of danger BEFORE it arrives.
Sometimes this warning can be quite brief, but in many cases it’s possible to know when predators are nearby for many minutes in advance.
For me personally, alarm calls are the most exciting part of bird language because it has such practical value for understanding wildlife.
This is where the true implications of bird language knowledge come to their deepest fruition.
I’ve personally had success using bird alarm calls to locate owls, hawks, house cats, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, raccoons, even nest robbing squirrels & jays!
It takes a fair bit of practice to get a firm handle on all the different ways alarm calls show up on a landscape, but the eventual rewards can sometimes appear almost magical.
Here’s an example of some crow alarms I managed to film in my backyard.
If you watch carefully you’ll see an Owl fly out from the center of their activity. This is an extremely common alarm.
Next – Let’s check out a recording of what American Robins sound like in a similar situation.
Now, the key thing to notice in this recording is that it’s not just one individual robin making noise.
If you listen carefully, you’ll notice there’s actually two birds vocalizing rhythmically and together.
This dual rhythmic pattern caused by multiple birds calling simultaneously is a common feature you’ll notice in all different types of bird species during alarm situations.
Here’s an example of some sparrows doing the exact same thing.
One of the cool things about alarms is that they are responsive to whatever animal is causing the disturbance.
This means that there are degrees and shapes of alarm that tell whether you’re dealing with a cat, or hawk, or coyote, etc.
Here’s another example of a robin alarm, only this time, it’s a much more subtle vocalization. This is often the call robins make when there’s house cat in the area.
If you want to learn more about bird language, I have an online video course that goes really deep into practical bird language skills.
The course includes my bird alarm masterclass, and a free 1 hour phone consult to help you apply the course materials in your own individual situation – click here if you want more info.
Now for one final related question that people sometimes ask…
Can Birds Understand Other Birds?
Yes, birds can understand other birds. It’s extremely common for them to eavesdrop on other species during alarm situations.
Since bird language is 100% non-verbal, it means there’s no cultural differences or regional variations to memorize.
While the specific bird species might vary from place to place, the actual meanings of their songs & calls are identical!
It’s not like robins have one language, and crows have another, and sparrows have another language.
It’s a universal language.
Sometimes wild cats and canines seem to have an instinctual recognition of bird language, as they take steps to avoid detection by birds while stalking prey.
Even native humans like the bushmen of the Kalahari have been well documented to use their knowledge of bird language as an essential survival skill for thousands of years.
This is really where my love of birds really started for me.
A huge part of my passion for nature is just about getting closer to wildlife and being accepted by the animals…
The language of birds has probably done more for my own wildness than anything else I’ve studied.
I’m excited to have you joining me on this adventure!