Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Above Photo by @maracevedo_photography
Bird song is one of nature’s many beauties. It fills the forest with music and sound. But have you ever taken a moment to think about what they’re saying? Birds use their calls for many reasons, including keeping track of companions, alerting each other about nearby danger, and impressing the ladies. An individual bird can have many different calls and trying to decode the language of the birds can be a bit overwhelming. So let's focus on just a couple of birds.
Above Photo by @steve_hardill_outdoors
Like humans, many bird species like to stay in monogamous pairs. These pairs spend lots of time together and keep track of each other with companion calls. These calls are normally just the little cheeps you hear around your bird feeder or in the forest canopy. A good example of this would be the Northern Cardinal, recognizable by the male’s bright red feathers. The companion call sound is a cheep, then a similar cheep a few seconds later in a different location. They do this over and over to keep track of each other. But if one doesn’t respond, the cheeps get louder and faster until they become alarm calls.
Above Photo By @sn_powers_photography
Alarm calls have many different forms. They are normally very loud and frantic, but they can also be specific to the type of predator that is attacking. A good example of a bird’s alarm call is the Black Capped Chickadee, who’s name comes from the sound of their alert call “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee”. The number of dees indicates the level of threat the chickadee feels. So humans may get 1-2 dees while a fox or snake might get 3-5 dees. While a big threat like a bird of prey simply gets a high pitch whistle. When all is good though, birds spend a lot of time simply singing.
Above Photo by @raecosta
Song birds have many different songs and their meanings can vary as well. Songs are usually used for two reasons, to attract mates and defend territory. Songs are very important for birds. So much so that the males practice in their adolescence. It is a sign of health and strong genes for the ladies of the bird world so it is important for the males to get it right. A good example of a bird song that is easy to find is the American Robin. Their songs are almost like two trilling sentences with a question and answer. The Northern Cardinal’s song sounds like a laser blaster, and the chickadee’s song is two or more high notes with the first one held out longer and with a higher pitch than the following. These songs say I am here, I am strong enough to defend my territory and healthy enough to produce children.
Above Photo by @rbrdcky
Like humans, birds are very vocal. Our backyards and the forests are filled with the sounds of songs, calls, alarms, and many other various communications between our feathered friends. When beginning to learn bird song, it is best to start with just a couple of species. As we begin to relearn the language of the birds we can again appreciate the magic and complexity of their lives, and in turn give them the respect they deserve. So go out and listen!
“What a Robin Knows” by Jon Young