This page will introduce you to the five voices of the birds. These five voices are an easy way to simplify the complex language of birds into basic categories that we can use as a frame of reference for interpreting their behavior.
When you learn to recognize the difference between the song, companion call, territorial aggression and juvenile begging then the alarms will start to pop out and become more obvious.
You can watch the video or read the article below. Both versions are a bit different so feel free to do both!
Here's a written format of the five voices of the birds. Simply knowing that these categories of vocalization exist will enable you to bring a much greater depth to your awareness of bird sounds. It'll get you started with a solid foundation.
Songs are often melodious or lengthy jumbles of sound. They are the most common voices to be represented on birds sound cds and recordings.
You'll often see birds singing up on their perch or circling around their territory in springtime. This is the time when they're setting up territories & attracting mates.
Since birds don't sing when they're scared... if you hear song coming from the robin that sits on the edge of your yard then you can safely assume there are no predators around.
Companion calls are soft repetitive sounds that birds use to keep track of each other while they're feeding.
You can hear these calls at any time of year because birds have to keep track of each other in all seasons. Sometimes these sounds are referred to as feeding calls or contact calls on bird vocalization CDs.
If you see all the birds are on the ground feeding and making this soft chirp to each other you then you know they're saying that they feel safe where they are and there are no predators in the immediate vicinity.
If you hear short intense burst of action with wings flapping and loud calls, you might look over and see two robins scuffling over the border agreements of their territories. This is an important voice to watch out for at first because it sounds very alarming.
But, if you look around and notice that it's just one pair of birds involved in the scuffle and all the other birds are still singing or feeding and calling softly to each other then you know the birds aren't broadcasting alarms.
The difference between territorial aggression and alarm is that an alarm concerns all the birds in a given area while territorial aggression is just a fight between two neighbors.
In springtime after the birds have made their nests and the eggs have hatched, you might hear the incessant calling of juveniles begging to be fed by their parents.
For me this voice is extremely important for understanding what stage birds are at in their yearly cycle. Juvenile birds represent a larder (or easy food source) for things like hawks so you'll see a lot of different behaviors from the predators at this time of year as they take advantage of this larder.
Juveniles are still just learning bird language so if an alarm sounds they might not know to pay attention. If you hear alarms at this time of year, the Juveniles might continue giving their begging calls. You might think that because the Juveniles are acting normal that everything is fine but all the adult birds might be hiding from the hawk that just moved in.
Juveniles have a lot to tell us even if they don't necessarily understand what's going on.
The voice of alarm can be expressed by birds in many different ways. It's often just a louder and more intense version of their companion call but when an aerial predator is around you might also hear a thin high pitched sound like the whistles that people blow to attract dogs.
Getting an understanding of alarms can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be. It is possible to learn to interpret the dynamics within the calls and tell the difference between the alarm structure of an owl vs. a cat vs. a fox or a hawk.
In the beginning you'll probably want to start by just listening for the general feeling of alarms. Then as time goes on your ears will adjust to the process and you'll start to hear more and more subtle dynamics.
As you get to know one place through the seasons and learn how these 5 voices are expressed through the local bird life you'll start to get an understanding for what constitutes normal behavior in different seasons and times of day. As you start to get a feel for what's normal, you'll notice that the abnormalities or alarms that get broadcasted will become more apparent.
The more you investigate the sources of alarms the more you'll learn & eventually come to know bird language. It does take time and patience but if you keep getting out there, watching, listening, investigating, & exploring you will get it.
If you want to learn more you can check out birdlanguage.com. It's another great resource for learning.
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