Have you ever wondered how birds communicate with all those amazing sounds they make?
Many years ago I began studying birds to better understand what messages they might be sending around the forest.
After much study and personal research, I’ve discovered there are some pretty fascinating things to know about what birds are saying.
Birds communicate with vocal sounds like songs, companion calls & alarm calls as well as with visual cues like body language & behavior.
These messages are used by birds to find mates, keep track of friends & family, to locate food, stay safe from predators, and defend territories from rival birds.
Many people struggle to learn bird language because there are so many different calls, sounds & behaviors to memorize.
So today I’d like to share some easy ways you can start to understand bird communication and interpret their messages whenever you step outside.
If you follow the steps on this page, you will gain some amazing new perspective on how birds communicate (and it’s great fun to know what they’re saying!)
What Do Birds Say To Each Other?
One of the most important things to unlock what birds are saying is to always remember that birds communicate for survival.
This means when you hear birds making noise, you can be certain they’re talking about very practical and life essential things like food, mating, territory & safety.
This knowledge really helps us know what they’re saying because it means there’s only a handful of things birds could possibly communicate about.
Here are a few examples of some common bird messages that relate directly to survival:
- Food “Hey, there’s food over here”
- Courtship “Hey ladies, I’m here, where are you?”
- Territory “This is my turf” “Stay away from my female!”
- Companion Calls “I’m still here. Are you still here?”
- Alarm Calls “HAWK!” “Here comes the cat!”
These are all pretty standard “phrases” that birds might choose to express with a song or a quiet calling back and forth, or a loud scolding depending on the situation.
All we have to do is determine which particular message is actually playing out by comparing bird sounds with the accompanying bird behavior.
To accomplish this, we need clear examples that help us compare and contrast what it actually sounds like when birds communicate different messages.
So let’s take a closer look at two of the most common examples of communication between birds.
Bird Calls vs Songs
One of the best ways to start hearing what birds say is to practice listening for a basic difference between the sound quality of calls and songs.
There is an obvious audible difference that can be used to classify bird sounds into two meaningful categories.
If you want to understand how birds communicate, it’s important that you’re able to hear this difference so you can begin sorting bird sounds and make sense of all that complex noise.
To show you this clear difference between calls and songs, watch this video I made with examples so you can hear exactly what I’m talking about:
It’s important to realize this difference between calls and songs is a universal principle of how songbirds communicate all around the world.
The difference has nothing to do with any particular species, so you don’t need to be skilled at bird identification to know which message is being given.
(Of course, bird identification is still a very useful skill when it comes to bird language so you can learn more about how to identify birds in other articles)
When it comes to learning bird sounds, it’s very important to start simple so you don’t overwhelm your ears.
Once your accuracy is high at identifying calls and songs, you’ll be ready to move onto more complicated knowledge of bird language, which we’ll discuss in the section on alarm communication.
As you practice listening to what birds say in the forest, it’s also very important to correlate these sounds with visual levels of communication like body language & behavior.
So let’s discuss those next…
Bird Body Language
Beyond the most obvious sounds birds make, you can learn a tremendous amount about how birds communicate by observing their body language.
Some common examples of visual displays that help communicate a bird’s message include:
- Tail flipping
- Chasing & hiding in the bushes
- Beak rubbing against branches
- Waving the wings excitedly
- Head bobbing
- Flight speed & trajectory
- Maintenance of personal space
- Overall emotional state
Whenever you see an example of bird body language, look closer so you can try to determine what’s causing the bird to act that way.
Repetitive body motions like tail flipping and beak rubbing are often signs of alertness used to flag the attention of other nearby birds.
These movements can also be a nervous response that helps you know the emotional state of whatever bird is making a display.
With lots of practice studying the subtleties of body language in birds, you’ll discover that every action birds take is always communicating their inner feelings & intentions.
Even the specific pattern of bird flight will carry it’s own message depending on the body language used to perform the movement.
A sudden explosion of flapping wings as a bird launches off and evacuates the area is a very different type of body language from a bird gently flying up to a low perch for a better view.
This is what’s sometimes known by psychologists as non-verbal communication, and it’s even more important in birds than it is in humans.
An important insight to remember is that body language adds context to behavior… So let’s take a look at the relationship between bird behavior and body language.
Bird Behavior As Communication
While bird behavior is very closely related to body language, it’s also worthwhile to study these individually for their own insights.
An important distinction here is to realize that almost any bird behavior can be done with an underlying body language that communicates either stress or relaxation.
Birds will typically avoid doing maintenance behaviors like feeding, nest building, and preening when there are predators in the area because it puts them at risk by splitting their attention.
When there are dangerous animals in the area, it’s much safer to focus on alarm behavior and staying alert to what’s happening.
These alertness behaviors help to communicate the location of any nearby predators to other nearby birds, as well as the level of risk posed by the threat.
Opposite to this when you see birds singing, building nests, feeding & defending territories, it’s a pretty good bet they’re not in any immediate life-threatening danger.
However, in actual practice there’s a lot more grey area to knowing what birds are communicating through their behavior.
Sometimes it’s simply not practical for a bird to stop eating and doing life essential behaviors, so birds have to balance being cautious while continuing to take the necessary actions that support their success in life.
A great example is feeding behavior…
If you watch carefully, you’ll notice there are times when birds feed with a very relaxed body language, rhythmically gathering at a relaxed pace and consistency.
While other times, that same bird feeding will have very tentative body language, perhaps stopping frequently to listen, or intensely ditch into the bushes before re-emerging to resume the behavior.
This is a body language of high alertness, and it communicates a very different message about what’s happening in their surroundings.
Notice even though the behavior is the same, the underlying communication of that bird is saying something very different.
Considering that some hawks have diets made of 91% songbirds, these alertness and alarm behaviors are an extremely important type of communication between birds.
Communication About Predators
As you spend time watching birds and listening to the variety of calls, you’ll discover a huge amount of their communication is devoted to talking about nearby predators.
Songbirds are particularly noted for having devised long distance alarm calls that provide advanced warning of dangerous animals in the area.
There are different types of alarm calls used by birds to divulge the locations of hawks, cats, owls, weasels, and any other animal that poses a safety risk.
I covered a lot of depth on bird alarm calls in other articles, so I recommend reading more on this if you really want to gain the deepest understanding of how birds communicate in your area.
For a quick example of exactly what this looks and sounds like, here’s a video I made of some crows alarming at a Barred Owl.
When you hear crows making calls that sound like this, go check it out because they might be telling you there’s an owl hiding in the forest.
Why Should You Listen To Birds?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time studying birds, it’s that there really is meaning to all those crazy sounds and movements they make.
With practice, you can learn to hear and interpret what birds are saying to such a degree that they will lead you to amazing adventures and discoveries.
I’ve used bird language to have amazing close encounters with owls, hawks, bobcats, mountain lions, bears, coyotes & foxes (and so much more I can’t even describe).
It’s amazing to step outside and within a few moment, have a read on what’s happening in the landscape just by tuning your ears with what birds are saying.
Birds will tell you where the food sources are, where they’re building nests, which other birds they’re friendly towards and which ones they dislike.
Birds will tell you when they’re in love, and if they lose their partner to a neighbourhood cat, you will be able to empathize with the change in their communication.
Most of all, listening to birds will have a huge impact on your own personal relationship to nature.
For traditional people, knowledge of bird communication was a survival skill under the umbrella of wildlife tracking to help them find food, hunt and stay safe from dangers like poisonous snakes, tigers and other humans.
In modern times, listening to birds helps us activate a long-lost sensory potential that has atrophied due to modern disconnection from nature.
If you’re looking to really grow your own love and appreciation for nature, pay attention to what birds are saying and they will show you the way!