Bird language is an amazing skill that isn’t often taught. This is probably because it’s kind of an unusual skill.
Even though I would put it in the same category as something like animal tracking, most trackers don’t really pay enough attention to birds in order to really learn bird language to any significant depth.
A lack of teachers means there really isn’t a whole lot of information out there about how to get started in learning.
It’s easy to fumble around and not really know what do to do or how to get started so I’m going to share four basic aspects of practice that will help you start to learn bird language in your local area.
These are four simple things you can do that will help you expand your awareness over time into the subtle realms of bird vocalization.
If you do these things over and over again it’s like training your brain to gradually accumulate more and more information that results in being able to detect alarms at a distance and track down the animals causing the disturbance.
#1 Adopt a Sit Spot
When you go outside, one of the most helpful things you can do is to adopt a place out in nature that you visit on a regular basis to just sit and relax and observe what’s happening around you.
Often times one of the hardest things for people to do is slow down enough that their senses can actually take in enough information from the landscape to detect and track bird alarms.
We really need to practice listening, hearing, feeling, sensing, and smelling without all the distracting time commitments and the need to get from one place to another.
All you have to do is pick a spot somewhere out in nature and sit down.
This is the first step in giving yourself the opportunity to learn the routine patterns of your local birds, which brings us to the second step…
#2 Learn the birds of your study area
Learning the birds for the purposes of bird language means learning to recognize the five voices of the birds (song, companion call, territorial aggression, juvenile begging and alarm) in the various species that you see at your sit spot.
Furthermore, once you start tuning into alarms then there are all sorts of other distinctions that you can make within the alarm voice that tell you if the source is a cat or a hawk, or a human or whatever.
To help you figure out how the five voices work in the birds at your sit spot it’s really helpful to have some specific questions in the back of your mind that help point your awareness whenever you see or hear a bird.
Questions about identification: Who is that bird? Is it a Robin or a Junco? Male or female?
Questions about behavior: Is it feeding? Is it hiding? Is it singing? Where and when do these behaviors occur?
Questions about emotional State: Is the bird agitated or is it more at ease? How alert is it?
Questions that draw awareness to any associated vocalizations: What sounds are associated with the various behaviors or emotional states that you observe with the birds?
These questions will help you begin to distinguish how all the different species act when there are predators around versus when there are no predators in the area.
#3 Keep track of your observations
One extremely helpful practice is to actually keep a notebook with you while you’re out at your sit spot and record any interesting events that happen during the time that you’re out there.
Here’s an example:
- Small dark grey bird with white underbelly feeding and calling softly under cedar tree.
- Robin singing from low branch on maple facing west
- Flock of intense birds suddenly flew through from southeast, Robin makes tutting noise & flies away.
When you finish your sit, if you’ve been out there for thirty minutes to an hour you should have a whole host of notes on the sequence of events that happened while you were out there.
This will form the basis of step number four where we’ll take our observations to the next level.
#4 Investigate your observations
When you finish your sit spot time you can now go through your notes from start to finish and review the experience to formulate some questions, conclusions as well as next steps for learning.
Building on the example from above…
1. Small dark gray bird with white underbelly feeding and calling softly under cedar tree
- Who was that bird? Can we find it in a field guide?
- Who was it calling to? Was that a companion call?
2. Robin singing from low branch on maple facing west
- Have I ever seen it sing from that location before?
- What is this song telling me about how the robin was feeling?
3. Flock of intense birds suddenly flew through from southeast, Robin makes tutting noise & flies away.
- What kind of birds were these?
- Which direction did the robin fly?
- Did any other birds respond to the action?
Don’t worry too much if you can’t answer all your questions. Just try to get some ideas for what you could track more closely next time…
- I think that bird was a Junco. I want to get a closer look.
- That robin probably wasn’t worried about a predator if it was singing. I should map out the different locations it sings from.
- I’m curious to watch for what happens the next time an intense flock comes through like that. I think this might be an alarm.
Through this process and getting out to your sit spot over and over again you’ll gradually learn to identify all the birds and understand a lot of their basic patterns, including what they do when they’re alarmed.
Some answers come quickly and some take more time.
It’s all part of the process but if you stick with it for long enough you’ll gain a very unique and deep understanding of nature.
The Four Steps In Action
So there you have it.
All you have to do is pick a sit spot and go there routinely with the goal of learning the five voices and other routine behaviors of birds.
If you stick with it and keep tracking your observations then eventually you’ll be able to follow the string of bird mysteries right to that sneaky cat and other cool animals that have been living all this time right under your nose.