When we talk about birdsong, we cannot simply refer to a single “voice”. It is a great chorus of complex sounds, it is a real language in itself.
The dry “teak” of a sparrow, the plaintive “gheck gheck gheck” of a woodpecker, the shrill “chirrip” of a lark – each sound has its own purpose and is used in very specific circumstances.
For birdwatchers, learning how to ‘decode’ the secret language of birds is a great way to identify different species and to better understand their behaviour.
The language of birds
Just as vowels and consonants provide the foundation for our words and sentences, birds produce a series of calls, songs and melodies in a ‘language’ so nuanced it could rival our very own alphabet!
This is all thanks to a special vocal organ called the syrinx – the size of a pea, it sits at the junction of the trachea and the bronchi in the lungs.
Its structure – which varies with each species – makes such different songs and sounds possible.
Each sound has a different purpose and this, in turn, makes it possible for birds to communicate with each other in different circumstances.
The warning calls
These involve sharp and penetrating sounds – warning signals used by birds whenever they feel threatened and want to warn companions of danger.
They are usually short sounds strong enough to be heard at great distances. The same sound is often used by predatory birds as part of their attack.
The cries for help
“Mom Mom Mom!” Just as children call for their mother with arms outstretched, small birds emit little moans and chirps to attract their mother’s attention, often flapping their wings for good measure.
The call intensity is low, but it can still be clearly perceived in the vicinity of a nest. Small birds frequently continue to use these calls after leaving the nest too – because mom is always mom!
The contact calls
“Hey, are you all right?” Contact calls for birds are more or less the equivalent of us making sure a friend is ok.
They use contact calls when they travel in flocks, want to call each other or even just share news about a good food source.
These calls are characterised by moderately strong chirps, similar to a “hum” but not as penetrating as the warning calls.
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Pass it on: Popular Science