Interpreting Bird Vocalizations Mild Alarm vs. Call: How to tell the difference...
This article shares some strategies that can help you gain more certainty about your interpretation of bird vocalizations.
When people first get into bird language and hear about the five voices of the birds one of the sticking points that often poses challenges is telling the difference between a mild level alarm call and the vocalizations that are directed towards non-predators such as a mate or a competitor.
We’re going to demystify the soundscape by looking specifically at what you can pay attention to that will make the real reason for the vocalization become apparent.
I’ll share four of my favorite questions to ask when alarm vs. call is unclear that’ll help you dig your ears into what’s really going on out there.
You can watch the video below or you can read the article or both as you desire. They're both a bit different. Enjoy!
Mild Alarm vs. Call: How to tell the difference...
Often when we’re outside and the birds are active there will be vocalizations happening that are unclear to our ears. We might hear certain birds making what sounds like very mild alarms. But is that really what they’re doing?
It’s easy to get caught in a trap of either brushing it off and thinking that it’s probably just a call when in fact there might be something happening beyond your awareness. It’s equally as detrimental to assume that it’s an alarm when in fact it’s nothing more than birds communicating to each other at a distance. Both of these assumptions eventually lead to doubt and an inability to interpret any actual events that are taking place in terms of predator-prey interactions.
It’s challenging because the same sound in different contexts can mean two completely different things! So what else can we use to distinguish mild alarm vs. call when the actual vocalization itself is the same or similar?
Here are four questions that you can ask yourself when you’re in the field and observing bird language that will help you dig in and gather more information. Each of these questions will point your awareness to notice different things about the sounds you’re hearing that will help you distinguish alarm vs. call.
1. How many different birds are involved in making these vocalizations?
Bird alarms are usually a multi-species response because a threat in the landscape doesn’t care what kind of bird it eats. Every bird within range of that predator will respond with alarms while it’s around.
You have to of course take into account how much activity there is. The greater variety of species that are active in any given moment the greater variety of species will respond to a predator.
A general rule is that if the calls are only being made by one species it’s less likely that you’re looking at alarm though there are always exceptions to the rule.
2. How long do the vocalizations go on for?
If all you hear is a fleeting moment of a call then there could be any number of things that cause it. Most predators can’t simply disappear so alarms are more likely to continue in some form as long as the animal is on the scene.
This can be a very long time in some cases. If the vocalizations go on for a long time and are a clear presence in the soundscape then it’s a good idea to do a bit of scouting.
See how close you can get and gather some more information. If you can catch a glimpse of the bird then you’ll be able to tell if it’s looking at something on the ground or if it’s feeding or if it’s looking out into the distance, etc.
3. Do the calls start and stop or are they continuous?
Sometimes alarms can happen in an on & off fashion. If the vocalization you’re listening to suddenly stops, keep listening! And notice if it starts up again either in the same spot or somewhere nearby. The alarm might even pass to another bird so stay alert!
Just because a vocalization stops for a brief time doesn’t mean it’s not an alarm. Listening for the different rhythms of vocalization gives you a lot of important cues to help sort out alarm vs. call. In time you’ll be able to hear by these dynamics when something is actually an alarm even though the call might be used in different contexts.
4. Is this always happening in the same place? Where exactly?
If this is a pattern that you’re observing over and over again then you have a better chance of being able to figure out what it is.
Pay attention for whether it happens in the same place repeatedly and you might notice that there’s a cat that uses the same trails over and over again, or an owl that likes to roost in a particular part of the forest.
Being tuned in to these habitual patterns will help you narrow down the potential predators and give you that much more certainty about your interpretations even when you don’t see the source of the alarm.
So there you have my four favorite questions to help parse out alarm vs. call. Of course, as I always say; the time spent in the field is the most important thing if you want to get skilled at observing bird language.
The next time you have questions about whether something is an alarm or call, stop and listen… Ask yourself these questions and see if you notice anything new that helps you gain a clearer conclusion about what’s happening.
This article was written by Brian Mertins. If you liked this article please take a moment to share it with your friends!
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Hi, my name is Brian and I created this website to share my love for nature. I’m here to show you step-by-step how you can learn cool and practical skills like bird language, animal tracking and nature observation.