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Secret language of birds

Places and activities    Nature guides    Secret language of birds

Learn how to understand what birds are saying to each other and other wildlife.

By Metro naturalist Elisabeth Neely

Understanding the language of birds

The cheerful chorus of morning bird song is one of the welcome signs of spring. Perhaps you have paused to enjoy it, and if you are a bird watcher, you know that songs are a great way to identify birds. But what else can you learn from the birds? Is there any meaning behind these sounds?

Nested within the chorus of spring is a kind of knowledge almost lost to our busy modern world. Birds hold the key to a deeper connection with nature. They can teach us how to see more wildlife and enjoy close encounters with deer, fox, and other elusive animals. Certain songbirds (like wrens, robins and sparrows) act as feathered guardians of the forest, and by learning to interpret their songs and calls, we can gain passage to new and rich experiences in nature.

The basics of bird "language" are relatively simple, even if you are new to bird watching. Like humans, songbirds vocalize to communicate. They don't make sounds randomly, but instead "talk" about what is going on in the forest. Two of the easiest types of bird sounds to recognize are songs and alarm calls.

Why do birds sing?

"Why do birds sing?" I asked a group of children at Oxbow Regional Park last summer. "To attract mates and define their territories!" answered an older boy. A 4-year-old girl added shyly, "Birds sing because they are happy, and they want to make us happy." I think both answers are probably true in a way. In bird "talk," musical songs indicate all is well in the forest: no predators are present, and the birds can feed, sing, argue over territories, and do other bird things. The sound of a relaxed robin singing is easy to understand because it makes us feel this way too – it's a sound that lifts our own hearts when we hear it.

What happens when a predator sneaks into our idyllic scene? The nearby birds quickly give an alarm call, an urgent-sounding "chirp" or similar short sound that warns, "Danger is coming!" Other animals heed the signal: other birds stop singing and fly for cover, the deer lifts its head and freezes, the rabbit melts into the bushes. Suddenly, the forest is silent.

When humans walk through the woods in a hurry or while talking with a friend, we don't see much wildlife. We may assume that there aren't many animals living there, but more likely, they knew we were coming and hid minutes before our arrival because we (oops!) set off this forest alarm system. But if we learn the forest "etiquette" to avoid setting off alarms, we can become almost "invisible" and see many more wild animals without frightening them.

To practice, find a spot in a park or greenspace and sit quietly for an hour. Take note as the birds begin to relax and sing again. When I do this, I am always surprised at the fascinating behavior animals will reveal when humans simply stay still long enough. Any new onset of bird alarms announces that another animal (or person) is moving near.

Learning to interpret calls

Recently a sixth-grade class from Portland was enjoying lunch during their field trip at Oxbow. Two birds on the wooded hill above us began to call, "chip-chip! chip-chip!" The students recognized the winter wrens' message. They stayed still and watched, and soon spotted a beautiful buck and two does sneaking through the trees right past our picnic spot. This was the first time many of them had ever seen a deer; they were thrilled. Without the help of the birds they never would have seen them.

Birds speak volumes about the connections in nature. They communicate constantly about the interactions between birds, deer, foxes…and us. Whether we choose to interpret the sounds or simply enjoy them, the symphony of the birds goes on around us. The notes hang sweetly in the air like messages in bottles, washing up on our shores from a foreign land, waiting to be read.

These teachings have been passed down from Apache tracker Stalking Wolf through Tom Brown Jr. and Jon Young's Wilderness Awareness School.

See for yourself

For more information about visiting Metro parks and natural areas with a naturalist, check out the Metro GreenScene... More

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