How do birds communicate? It’s a question that all birdwatchers ponder at one point or another. And while the musical splendor of birdsongs may tempt us to believe that the birds are singing out of the pure enjoyment of life, the truth is much more amazing.
Because birds come in all different shapes and sizes, each species offers slightly different skills when it comes to communicating. This has led to quite a beautiful tapestry of bird language.
The first way that birds “talk” to each other is through aural communication, or by making sounds. But this description doesn’t quite sum it up. Because of the incredible diversity in bird biology, there are so many sounds that different species can make. That’s why we can’t settle with a simple “tweet tweet.” Instead, aural communication can include chirping, singing, calling, whistling, trilling, buzzing, hawing, screeching, and many more distinct sounds that birds can make using their voice.
In addition, birds can communicate by making sounds with other parts of their bodies, too. For example, the ruffed grouse, found throughout the northern part of the United States and Canada, makes a drumming sound by quickly beating its wings in the air. This is an example of non-vocal aural communication.
Birds use visual cues to communicate with others, too. A good example of this non-vocal communication is captured in the phrase “proud as a peacock,” in which the striking bird boldly struts through an area with colorful feathers fully extended in an impressive display. But peacocks aren’t the only birds to use their bodies to send a message. Many backyard varieties can be spotted using body language and behavior to communicate with others, too.
Birds like blue jays, cardinals, and wrens can often be seen using body language and physical posturing. Puffing up the shoulders, spreading the wings, and quickly dipping the tail are all visual cues that birds can use to send a message to others. While these motions may not be as jaw-dropping as that of the peacock, these visual cues still play an important role in everyday bird communication.
See also: Birdsong Identification Tips
What’s All the Chatter About?
So if birds can talk to each other using aural and visual communication, what exactly are they saying? Here are some of the most common ideas that birds communicate:
- Hey, there, I’m here; where are you? Birds commonly use communication as a way to locate other birds. This is particularly relevant for birds that fly together in a flock. By sending flight calls, birds are able to navigate together as a group, sticking together rather than whizzing off in different directions.
- Back off! Another common message that birds send to others is one of defense. This may be used if a bird feels like someone or something is coming too close to the nest or encroaching on designated territory or resources, like food and water.
- Single bird, strong and attractive, looking for a mate. Courtship display is another common reason birds communicate. Calls aimed at attracting a mate typically advertise a bird’s desirability (strength and health) by showing off what they have to offer.
- Look out! Alarm calls are also very common when birds perceive a threat in the area. One study showed that chickadees can actually articulate the threat-level of predators in their alarm call. The larger the threat, the more ‘dee’ sounds are included in the ‘chick-a-dee-dee-dee’ call.
See also: How Do Birds Mate?
Talking Bird to Bird, and Bird to … Squirrel?
One of the most amazing aspects of bird communication is that, in many cases, bird language can surpass species limitation. In other words, cardinals aren’t limited to communicating only with other cardinals. While not all language is universal in the bird world, some messages – especially those of warning and distress – can be interpreted between different types of birds.
To take this phenomenon even further, an article published in The New York Times recently showed that red squirrels and chipmunks can actually understand some bird alarm calls, including those of the eastern tufted titmouse. Clearly, this is a game changer for understanding how larger ecosystems function as a whole. If birds are capable of alerting other species, like squirrels and chipmunks, to the threat of larger predators nearby, just what other animals are listening in that we aren’t aware of yet?