How Birds Communicate – The extraordinary avian language


how-do-birds-communicate

A bird chirping outside your bedroom window at sunrise may just be a beautiful sound to you. To the bird itself or another of its species, its song quite likely has a much deeper meaning than we may ever know. And singing is just one of many ways in which birds communicate.

Birds communicate in a myriad of ways. Not only do they sing, but they also use body language, color, movement, percussive sounds, and even the manipulation of their environment such as the elaborate structures built by bower birds. Some aspects of bird communication we may never understand.

Continue reading to discover some amazing facts about how birds communicate. Not only will we look at how they communicate with each other but also how they do it with other animals…even us.

How Birds Communicate With Song

Female Red-backed Fairy Wren – image by Barry Callister Photography

Birds make some of the most beautiful sounds on the planet. They astonish us with their vocal skills. In fact, some bird songs are so complex and audibly rich that our human ears are not even equipped to hear their fine nuances.

A bird’s song is one of its major communication tools. But how are they able to make the amazing array of sounds they make? And what exactly are they saying?

Are you hearing strange bird sounds at night? Find out what it might be in this article on Birdwatch World.

A Bird’s Vocal Equipment

We, humans, make our sounds with our voice boxes or larynxes. Birds also have a larynx however it is not used to produce sound. Their larynx sits higher up their windpipe and serves as a valve to stop food and water from entering the bird’s lungs.

Image from All About Bird Anatomy at allaboutbirds.org. (Edited from original)

Birds make their sounds using an organ called the syrinx. The syrinx is a box-shaped organ that sits at the bottom of the windpipe, right where it splits in two to carry air to both lungs. Within the syrinx, there are fleshy lips the bird can use to close one, the other, or both of the openings.

When the bird expels air from its lungs through the syrinx it produces a sound. The bird can control the pitch and quality of the note produced by vibrating each pair of lips independently.

The pitch of notes a bird produces can also be modified by the length of its windpipe. The longer the windpipe, the deeper the sound that can be made.

Cape Barron Goose – image by Barry Callister Photography

Birds such as Cape Barron Geese are an example of this. These long-necked birds are able to produce quite a deep tone:

Recorded by Marc Anderson from xeno-canto.org.

Some birds are able to shorten their windpipe at will, thus raising the pitch of the sound produced. Surrounding their windpipes are rings of cartilage connected by muscles. The bird uses these muscles to contract the rings of the windpipe kind of like the bellows of an accordion.

The trachea of a Chicken – Opzwartbeek, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the image above, you can clearly see the rings of cartilage in the trachea of a chicken.

Hear the calls of 10 common New England birds in this article on Birdwatch World.

Singing And Breathing At The Same Time

As birds are able to control each tube in their syrinx independently, they are able to breathe tiny breaths in between the notes of their calls. This is how they are able to keep singing for minutes at a time.

Canaries, in fact, make 90% of their sounds with their left tube and use the right tube for breathing.

A Yellow Canary Singing – image by FoarOaks from Getty Images

Different Types Of Vocalizations

Now you know the physics behind how birds make their sounds but what are they saying?

Birds basically have two different types of sounds: songs and calls. A song is generally longer, more complex, and has a musical pattern such as the song of the Australasian Figbird:

Australasian Figbird recorded by Meena Haribal from xeno-canto.org.
Male Australasian Figbird – image by Barry Callister Photography

The most skilled song-singers in the bird world are Passerine birds (songbirds).

A call is generally shorter, often a single syllable:

15 Minutes White-throated Sparrow S...
15 Minutes White-throated Sparrow Song/Calls/Sounds
Australasian Figbird call. Recorded by Marc Anderson from xeno-canto.org.

When you hear a bird singing, it is most likely a male. Males will sing to announce or defend their territory or to attract a female.

Bird calls can have a multitude of different meanings. Some types of calls are:

Alarm Calls

These are given to indicate the presence of a threat such as a predator. Different species also have variations in their alarm calls that indicate both the size and proximity of the threat. Chickadees are one species that does this.

Black-capped Chickadee alarm call – recorded by Valerie Heemstra from xeno-canto.org.
A Black-capped Chickadee sounding an alarm call – image by Paul Reeves Photography from Getty Images

The Black-capped Chickadee in fact has one of the most sophisticated systems of communication of any land animal. Scientists have studied their language extensively and found it to even contain syntax (the arrangement of words and phrases to created sentences).

Hear more Black-capped Chickadee calls in this article here on Birdwatch World.

Contact Calls

These are calls birds make to let each other know where they are. They will often do this when foraging for food. Contact calls are normally short and quiet.

Chipping Sparrow contact call – recorded by William Whitehead from xeno-canto.org.
Eurasian Tree Sparrows foraging – image by Gerdzhikov from Getty Images

Flight Calls

Many bird species have flight calls that are quite different from their usual calls. Flocking birds such as Blackbirds, Bluebirds, or Waxwings are an example:

Cedar Waxwing flight call – recorded by Manuel Grosselet from xeno-canto.org.
A Cedar Waxwing in flight – image by Genfirstlight from Getty Images

Check out David Attenborough’s The Life Of Birds on Prime Video now to learn more about bird communication.

Begging Calls

Begging calls are the “feed me” noises young birds will make to let their parents know they are hungry. These sounds can be similar from species to species and so hard to identify. Pileated Woodpecker chicks have a buzzing, rasping begging call:

Pileated Woodpecker begging call – recorded by Kevin Hood from xeno-canto.org.
Pileated Woodpecker chicks begging for food – image by mirceax from Getty Images

How long do birds stay in the nest? Find out here in this post on Birdwatch World.

Talking Without A Voice

Not all birds are as vocally skilled as songbirds. In fact, some birds don’t sing or make sounds very often at all, they communicate in other ways.

One such bird is the dinosaur-like Shoebill from Africa.

A Shoebill – image by Ruth Cassidy from Getty Images

These large birds are usually silent. One distinct noise they do make is a machine-gun-like clicking of their huge bills. Shoebills will make this sound to attract a mate.

New World Vultures such as California Condors do not have voice boxes and so have to communicate using hissing or guttural noise created by expelling air from their lungs and air sacks.

A California Condor – image by NNehring from Getty Images Signature

Vultures use sounds like this as warnings or threats to predators or rivals that approach too close to their nests or territories. They will also use their sounds to dictate pecking order when feeding on a carcass.

Using Visual Communication

A Peacock – image by Barry Callister Photography

A bird’s feathers are not simply tools for flight, they are also an important part of how they communicate.

With its feathers, a bird can attract a mate, ward off a predator, gain the upper hand with a rival, and even deceive.

There is perhaps no more stunning display of communication than a male peacock with fully spread tailfeathers.

Male Indian Peafowl with tailfeathers fully spread – image by Hans Harms from Getty Images

The beautiful colors of birds which we find so appealing and fascinating are actually another way they communicate.

Male Indian Peafowl (peacocks) use their brilliantly adorned tailfeathers to attract a mate. What better way to say “Hey babe, how about it?” than that stunning display of color?!

Other bird species also have markings on their feathers that resemble eyes. The Sunbittern, a medium-sized (43-48cm) bird from the foothills of Central and South America is one such bird.

Sunbittern displaying – image by Patty McGann from Flickr. Edited from original. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

If approached unexpectedly while nesting, sunbitterns will spread their wings and tails to reveal the eye-like markings on their wings. If this display does not deter the intruder, the bird will slowly advance, wings outstretched, with such confidence that it appears for all intents and purposes to be dangerous.

By doing this, sunbitterns are deceiving as they are most certainly not dangerous, especially not to animals larger than they are.

Are birds like the Sunbittern fearless or stupid? Find out here in this article.

Tricksters Of The Bird World

The overly-confident display of the sunbittern is naturally employed as a defense mechanism. There are other birds that use deception in similar ways.

The Tawny Frogmouths of Australia are experts in deception, using their feathers to make predators believe they are something they’re not.

A Tawny Frogmouth blending in – image by Barry Callister Photography

When tawny frogmouths notice a predator approaching, they close their eyes, tip their beaks toward the sky and make their bodies as long and slender as possible.

They will stay like this, perfectly still, using their appropriately colored feathers to blend into the gum tree they are perched in. With this, they are clearly communicating “I’m a stick, nothing to see here.

Another bird that employs this same trick is the Potoo of South America. You can see the potoo’s blending skills compared to those of a tawny frogmouth in the image below:

Left: Potoo. Right: Tawny Frogmouth

The Language Of Love

There are perhaps no displays of courtship as stunning and wonderfully varied as those of the bird world. This is definitely an area of communication in which birds excel.

From brilliant displays of color to death-defying aerobatics and choreographed dances; mating in the avian world is beautifully deliberate and ceremoniously executed.

Color Is Key

In many species of birds, during the breeding season, males will develop breeding plumage. This is sometimes extremely colorful, sending a clear message to potential mates. One species where this transformation is astonishingly complete is the Mandarin Duck.

A Male Mandarin Duck in eclipse plumage – image by Heather Paul from Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The male mandarin duck in the image above is in what is called eclipse plumage. This is a dull plumage similar to the female which the male will molt into after the breeding season is over.

To see a male mandarin duck in full breeding plumage, you would not even think they are the same species:

A male mandarin duck in full breeding plumage – image by Panu Ruangjan from Getty Images

The Dance Of Devotion

There are however bird species where the females and males are similar in color. How do these birds impart signals of mating? Well…they dance.

Perhaps no species does this quite so impressively as the Western Grebe. These waterbirds inhabit freshwater lakes and marshes in Canada, North America, and Mexico. Their courtship display is a dance like no other:

Falling In Love

Bald Eagles quite literally “fall in love” with each other.

To test each other’s worthiness for mating, a male and female will fly to a great height, lock talons, and then cartwheel toward earth together. They only release their hold at the last second before impact.

This ritual possibly tests the commitment of both birds to the relationship and tests their potential to produce strong offspring. Birds do die during this courtship display so it really is the ultimate test.

Communicating To Other Animals

Birds don’t just use their communication skills within their own species, they also relay information to other bird species, animals, and even humans.

Honeyguides are small thrush-like birds that live in Africa and Asia. They eat insects as most thrushes do however, they also have a taste for beeswax. In fact, they are the only known animals that can digest wax.

A Lesser Honeyguide – image by AGAMI stock from Getty Images

Some African bees construct their hives in holes of trees or in deep crevices between rocks where Honeyguides can’t reach. For this, they enlist the help of a Ratel, also known as an African Honey Badger.

A Ratel or African Honey Badger – image by compuinfoto from Getty Images

When a ratel enters the territory of a honeyguide, the bird will fly down to a perch near the badger and utter a specific call. The ratel will grunt a reply and amble towards it. The honeyguide then flies off toward the location of a beehive, stopping occasionally to signal with a call or flickering of its tail for the badger to catch up.

Upon reaching the hive location, the bird flies up to a higher perch and gives a different call to signal the hive is close by. When the ratel finds it, it will start digging, clearing an opening for the honeyguide.

Beehive – image by S. Rohrlach from Getty Images

Not only does the honey badger excavate an opening for the bird to make use of, but it also gets rid of the angry bees. Ratels secrete a foul-smelling substance from glands beneath their tails. People who have smelt this describe it as unbearable and obviously, the bees agree as they leave the hive quick-smart.

Honeyguides are also enlisted to aid the Boran people of northern Kenya to find honey. Boran honey-hunters know how to call the birds using a hollow seed, a shell, or their thumbs. Once a bird shows up, the same game of follow-the-leader ensues with the bird eventually leading the hunter to honey.

Are birdwatchers weird? This article here on Birdwatch World will give you the answer…

Overcoming The Language Barrier

Many species of birds will feed in common areas. Generations of different species that have done this have learned to interpret each other’s calls.

Birds such as Tits, Thrushes, and Finches that feed together will all react to the alarm call of one bird that might spy a hawk overhead. It doesn’t matter which species gives the call, they have all learned that a short, high-pitched ‘seet‘ signals a danger that needs to be hidden from.

A Sparrowhawk flying overhead – image by shurub from Getty Images

Perhaps they do this in the same way we recognize fear or danger in the tone of another person’s voice.

Using The Environment To Communicate

Certain bird species also know how to communicate using their environment. The masters of this would have to be Bowerbirds.

The males of these industrious little birds of Australia and Papua New Guinea all build bowers. A bower is an elaborate structure made from twigs, which they decorate with various colored things to impress females.

A male Satin Bowerbird – image by Barry Callister Photography

Items such as flowers, fruits, snake skins, bottle caps, and various plastic things are often used for decoration. The male will use objects of colors that the female prefers and will meticulously tend to their bower to ensure it is perfect and more impressive than any nearby rivals.

A male Satin Bowerbird tends to his bower – image by Ken Griffiths from Getty Images

A male bowerbird’s work is not done after the bower is complete. Once the bower catches the eye of a female, the male must also perform a dance in a last-ditch attempt to impress her and be given a chance to mate.

Some males go to all this trouble and fail to mate with a single female in a breeding season. Tough crowd?!

In Summary

I could sit here at this keyboard and type for weeks and weeks about bird communication. More is understood now about bird behavior and language than ever before and yet we still have so much to learn.

image by Manish Dhruw from Pexels

A lot of what we understand is assumed; we may never know the true meaning behind how birds communicate and perhaps we don’t need to.

For me here at Birdwatch World, it is enough just to observe them and enjoy their intriguing and remarkable behavior.

Perhaps if we can learn to let go of our innate curiosity we may find an appreciation for birds we never thought possible…

References


barrycallisterphotography

Barry is a bird photographer and bird watcher with over 7 years of experience. He runs his own YouTube channel about photography and promotes his nature photography on his personal website barrycallisterphotography.com.au.

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