Birding ain't for sissies. (How's that for poor English?) It's one of my favorite sentences, because it's so true. It drives me crazy when I hear a bird, strain my neck in trying to locate it with my binocs and can't find it. It's even more frustrating when others in my group can see it, and I'm the only one who can't.
The answer to the problem is learning bird language. This isn't easy either. I just wrote an article about how blue jays mimic other bird songs. Somehow that just isn't fair. However, song translation is still very helpful.
Birds can hear between 2,000 and 4,000 hertz (number of vibrations within a particular amount of time), but we can only hear the lower ranges of bird songs.
This baby robin is begging for food.
Photo by Dave Cooney
Some birds can sing two tunes at the same time. It's like the pianist's ability to play with two hands. I haven't heard of a bird that can sing three songs at the time. Organists are really challenged playing with both hands and their feet.
Obviously, birds sing to communicate in the daytime. Some, including owls and poor-wills, sing at night. They might do that with an alarm note to warn others of a predator. This method uses a lot of energy. Like mammals, birds also urinate to mark a territory. That's communicating, and it doesn't take extra energy.
Are you an early bird because you have more energy in the morning? Most birds sing at dawn more than any other time of day. Scientists suggest this is a better time because there are fewer winds and other noises at that time to prevent the song from being effective. That does not hold true with birds that feed on insects. The creepy crawlies are more active in the warmth in the middle of the day. At dusk, nature is usually pretty quiet, so the thrushes take advantage of the quiet to communicate. Do you know species that sing all day long? Red-eyed vireos and American robins are two. The northern mockingbirds can be very irritating if they choose to perform right outside your window at night. Thank goodness that is mostly a pre-breeding season activity.
What do bird calls mean? When are they used? First, there are contact calls used to keep track of chicks or a flock together in bad weather like fog. Second, birds might sing in one place and then in another to confuse predators. Third, alarm or warning calls are used to inform flock members of danger. Fourth, mobbing calls gather other birds from all over to try to scare a predator away. Fifth, parents might try to lure the predator's attention and away from their nest or chicks. Last, young beg parents for food with that incessant cheeping.
I highly recommend my main source for this article, "Bird Sounds - How and why Birds Sing, Call, Chatter, and Screech" by Barry Kent MacKay. I just touched the tip of the iceberg.
Birds communicate with other methods besides song. They might hit the air with their wings. They might beat their beak mandibles together, hit an object with their bills, or vibrate the feathers of their wings or tails. For instance, pheasants, quail, doves and grouse beat their wings together when you surprise them. That's supposed to confuse you. I reported to you recently that kingfishers might try to stun a fish by splashing the water. Some believe that ospreys also use that method.
Now that you know the meanings of some of the bird songs, all you have to do is memorize all of them. It's hard work, but well worth it. Good luck, birders.