On the trail, Tod continuously encourages us to focus more of our attention on bird language. We have learned the four baseline communications of birds and their alarm sound, which they make when danger is near. The baseline communications include: song, contact calls, territorial behavior, and juvenile begging. After several years, I’m just starting to hear more than their song.
We are all familiar with bird song. Even if we can’t see or identify the singer, we are pleased with the sound. We have a few birds we recognize with the changing seasons, or get excited to hear as they move through our yard. We love listening to the golden-crowned sparrow as it sings “Oh, poor me!”; the California towhee’s repetitive chirp; the American robin’s lengthy song at sunset; the chestnut-backed chickadee singing its name. And, of course, the many we haven’t yet named.
Most of us can identify contact calls and territorial behavior too, if we take a moment to pay attention. In our yard, the chickadees, junkos and California towhees chatter back and forth with their flock-mates or partners. They are checking in with each other and staying aware of everyone’s safety and location.
As for territorial behavior, the easiest for our family to see is the in-flight attacks of hummingbirds. They defend their territory against each other, seemingly all the time. This spring I also saw a hummingbird dive-bombing a pair of bushtits who seemed to be minding their own business in our plum tree. Hummingbirds are beautiful, but their aggressive spirit is much, much bigger than their body size!
More recently, we listened for juvenile begging in our yard, the rapid “feed me, feed me” that’s expected from hungry hatchlings. Tod told us he hears several nests of birds begging every time he leaves his house at this time of year. We hadn’t heard any! I made a conscious decision to listen for juvenile begging on Saturday. Turns out, there are baby birds everywhere! I heard at least 6 nests of beggars during my walk through the woods. Awareness and focus lead to discovery!
The last communication, bird alarms, have become more noticeable to the kids and me in the recent months. Our cats set them off as they walk across the yard. We set them off when we plow through the forest. The noise clearly conveys irritation and it is repeated constantly, in an attempt to get someone to go away from their space and to warn others of danger.
Last month, I heard a pair of bushtits alarming intensely. I fox-walked to the other side of the house to see what was going on and saw a scrub jay tormenting them by sitting near their nest…a few days later the bushtits were gone and the bottom of their beautiful, hanging nest was ripped apart.
I heard another bird alarm this morning at dawn. An intense alarm was coming from the big oak tree outside our living room. No birds were singing. Then, I heard my cat, who had chosen to ignore my calls to come in last night, speed across the deck on the other side of the house. I jumped up to let her in and she came skidding across the floor, poofy-tailed and aggravated. The bird kept alarming outside and then I heard something run across my roof…possibly a raccoon? The bird stopped alarming shortly afterwards and within one minute I heard the dawn chorus of several birds singing to the rising sun.
Listening to the birds can make us aware of activity in our surroundings, whether peaceful or threatening. We play a couple of games to help remember the different communications. In nature group, each family acted out a type of bird language to remind the group of the five types of communication. Another favorite game for the kids is Jays and Juncos, where communication through bird alarms is necessary for survival. And, of course, quiet sit spot time is a great way to listen to the birds…
Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird? – David Attenborough