Introduction to the Language of Birds: As they feed, nest and raise their young, birds relay messages about when it's safe and where predators are prowling. On Aug. 1 at Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area, walk the edge of Bybee Lake with naturalist Dan Daly to learn how to interpret what the birds are saying. This wetland habitat is great for tracking animals, and we will look for signs of the predators that hunt there.
It’s a Sunday, and I’m walking north on the Butler Creek Greenway Trail in Gresham. The day is clear and sunny, and soon I come to a small viewpoint that looks out over Johnson Creek. In the red alder trees that line the bank, a small flock of black-capped chickadees feed in the branches above.
One energetic bird belts out a “CHICKA – DEE DEE DEE” at twice the volume of the twittering birds around it. “That’s an alarm call,” I think to myself. “I wonder if it’s about me.”
Understanding the language of the birds allows a person to enter the story of the landscape. Birds are the most vocal animals on earth, and in 200 million years of evolution their voices have developed to communicate a wide range of messages. The exciting part is that people can understand what the birds are saying.
I pause, listen and look around. In the shadows on the far bank of the creek, a ripple moves out across the water. I crouch down and lean into the grey bark of the alder tree. Moments pass, and suddenly a muskrat explodes from a hole in the muddy bank.
Like a small brown cannonball, the muskrat hurls itself into the water. Swimming frantically, its tail is held in a shallow arc out of the water behind it. As it reaches the center of the stream, a mink pops out of the hole in hot pursuit.
By the time the mink is midstream, the muskrat reaches the far bank and heads for cover in the blackberry bushes. Having lost its advantage, the mink turns back and climbs onto a log. Pausing, its gorgeous dark fur is struck by the sunlight. It scans the bank and stares up at me with an intensity that made me glad that it was not much bigger than a loaf of French bread.
The mink follows the log up into the brambles, and a spotted towhee begins making alarm calls, which sound a lot like a meowing cat. The muskrat returns to the creek, and starts swimming laps back and forth, staying out in the open water.
Then, I remember. Several months ago, I walked up on this same viewpoint and saw a muskrat swiftly swimming back and forth as the far bank was a symphony of song sparrow alarms. It didn’t make sense at the time, but now a pattern emerges.
The song sparrows were likely calling out warnings about a mink. When the mink is on land, the muskrat’s safety zone in the open water.
Over time, people learned through observation how to interpret these types of bird calls in order to gauge where predators were on the landscape.
On the one hand, this is nothing new. Hunter gatherers lived shoulder to shoulder with formidable predators, and people were on the menu. On the other hand, understanding what the birds are saying has largely been forgotten by modern people. That may be changing.
Jon Young, an anthropologist and naturalist, has worked with Native American and indigenous elders around the world to relearn this language and has created a system to interpret what the birds are saying.
With a little practice, it’s easy to learn, because bird language can be heard every day in the cities, suburbs and right outside your door.
Is bird language the same thing as what you experience when you go on a bird identification walk? It's connected, but the goals of bird language are different than bird identification.
In bird identification, the goal is to walk around and see as many different kinds of birds as you can. The excitement is often around finding a rare bird.
In bird language, a person finds a spot outside and sits down. This allows the birds to return to the state of harmony that gets disrupted when a person moves around a lot. As the birds return to feeding and preening, a bird language observer pays close attention to certain birds.
Which birds? It’s the common songbirds – such as the American robin, Bewick’s wren and dark-eyed juncos – that live here year round and feed on the ground that are the most vocal about the predators that hunt them. The goal is to know these common birds very well, learn what they do when the landscape is in harmony and hear how they respond when a predator moves into their territory.
Personally, I enjoy both of these approaches and think they work really well together.
Summer is a great time of year to dive into the world of birds. Aren’t you curious about what the birds are saying?
Join Dan Daly on Aug. 1 at Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area for an Introduction to the Language of Birds.