Wilderness Wednesday (Ethan Peters)- Do you speak bird language? Part One
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
Well, neither do I, but I am learning! I am not a master at very many things, mostly because I am insanely interested in a very many things! Point being, I do not think we need to be a master of anything to share, to teach, to guide, to introduce and certainly not to learn. I would much rather be a lifelong learner than anything else.
Which brings me back to bird language. First, this is not teaching a parrot to mimic you, nor to be able to identify birds by their call, although this is helpful, nor is it being able to whistle so well that birds are responding to you!
~Eastern Blue Bird
Bird language is an ancient art, used by tribes still today and other nature enthusiasts. It is the ability to identify certain patterns birds make, the type of call they are emitting and other postures that we can observe. There is not much that will go unnoticed in nature when this is understood and observed, birds are constantly communicating about their environment and sending out warnings. Most of the beautiful sounds we hear coming from birds are alarm calls. It is another layer of observation in nature that allows us to tap into something deep within our DNA, the fog clears and we step through into a place of being in and with nature rather than keeping it at a distance.
I was told a story of a man who lost his dog in the area and was looking all over for him in the neighboring forests. Turns out, a man familiar with bird language lived nearby and found his dog because the birds were diving into the trees in a random pattern. Meaning, not in a straight line stealth-mode of a coyote, but in haphazard circles much like a dog foolishly dashes through a forest.
For example, birds actually have different flight patterns based on a predator that is walking on the ground.
Cats for example, such as a bobcat, typically stalk through a forest and are very good at staying undetected. However, birds will fly up and perch in trees in a parabolic shape around the cat. If it is a gray fox or coyote, which are usually trotting, it can send birds into what is called a bird plow or a popcorn pattern up into the trees. You have probably caused this yourself with doves; it is when they are flush out and up into the trees. I actually saw a gray fox in our field three days ago because of a bird plow and a screeching mockingbird marking it's location. They will even fly in a parabolic pattern to dive bomb an owl that is perched until he leaves the area.
~Gray Fox and Red-Shouldered Hawk
There are about 5 different calls that birds make in total such as, signature calls for mates and territory, companion calls for feeding location, juvenile calls for begging, aggression calls and alarm calls. Much of the calls are the same but the emotion is noticeably different. For example, a house finch will have a short, panicked chit with it's alarm call when a red-shouldered hawk swoops into the neighborhood. There will probably be a "cone of silence" in the main area where he just flew through.
How Do You Begin?
There is a lot more information to cover in regards to bird language, and even more stories about the history of this art. One of the few ways Indians always knew the Anglo's were approaching was because the birds were always alarming.
First step is to adopt a sit spot, which is a post in it of itself. A sit spot is simply an area to return to, to become familiar with in nature. This can be in a park, your porch, your backyard or wherever you can be in a natural setting. Sit, listen, and observe, especially how it changes over the seasons, but in this case, listen to the birds. Take notes of what kind of calls they are making such as soft, harsh, panicked or excited etc.
Second, choose 3-5 birds and learn their calls, some suggestions are the ones that are pretty common such as the Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, The Tufted Titmouse, and the Eastern Phoebe. The Eastern Bluebird and House Finch pictured earlier are great options as well. Learn all of their different calls.
Third, investigate your observations, such as:
What was their behavior?
What was that bird? male or female?
What was their emotional state?
Then slowly, put it all together! You would be surprised how much birds will tell you about the wildlife that is sneaking by right under your nose, even your buddy who is trying to sneak up and scare you!
This takes time, but the goal of this is not to convert people into birders. This is about nature connection and a pretty cool way to crack that door a little bit. Which could be as simple as hearing a chick call out to it's momma, or an alarm call about a snake in the grass, or an owl in the tree, all of which is amazing to observe and connect with.
Bottom line, enjoy nature, enjoy the birds and who knows what else you may stumble upon in a beautiful sit spot. More on all of these areas in the future!
Here are a couple of resources to get started:
App: Merlin Bird ID - Amazing way to identify birds and match their calls
App: BirdNet - Android Only, but you can record calls and it will identify the bird. There is Bird Song ID for Apple but I do not have personal experience with this.