You are walking through the forest, enjoying the orchestra of birdsong all around…
Suddenly everything changes. Some birds have gone deadly silent, while others are making anxious, diffuse high pitched seeeee! calls. Your pulse quickens. You know what’s coming and scan around. There it is! A sparrowhawk tears through the trees at lightning speed, as if from nowhere. It hurtles towards a blue tit, there is a puff of feathers and then it’s gone, in the blink of an eye. It would be easy to miss had you not heard the warning.
Bird language is an ancient art, and goes hand in hand with tracking. While not language in the technical sense, there is an amazing amount of information passed between different bird and animal species.
“If we learn to recognise alarm calls we can also learn how not to trigger them. When people enter the woods in a careless way, perhaps moving quickly and loudly, birds will see this as a threat.”
For birds it’s a matter of life and death to be acutely aware of everything they need in their environment to survive and thrive, and their calls and body language can reveal volumes about what is happening around us. In some parts of the world humans still use bird language as a matter of survival; it pays to avoid getting too close to a big cat in the undergrowth!
Perhaps this ability is hardwired into us. Make your own observations and see what you discover. Start by trying and pick out what tracker Jon Young calls the ‘five voices of the birds’: song, contact calls, juvenile begging, aggression and alarm. Also keep an eye out for body language and behaviour. A panicked explosion of pigeons in a town or city often announces the presence of a sparrowhawk of peregrine. If you ever see birds such as crows, gulls or swallows swooping down and then quickly ‘hooking’ back up, there’s probably a predator around; I’ve seen them doing this with many birds of prey, a fox and even an otter. An agitated gathering of blackbirds, jays and other birds in a tree can give away an otherwise well-camouflaged (and sleep-deprived) tawny owl.
If we learn to recognise alarm calls we can also learn how not to trigger them. When people enter the woods in a careless way, perhaps moving quickly and loudly, birds will see this as a threat. The blackbird gives its alarm and half the forest knows they’re there. And then they wonder why they hardly see any wildlife! If you do the opposite, moving with a little more awareness, it’s amazing the difference it can make.
A great way to learn bird language is to simply sit in one spot in nature and pay attention with all your senses and make notes. Over time you will make some powerful observations. We’ve barely scratched the surface here but the key thing is to simply get out there and get to know the neighbours! In a world where human sounds get plenty of airtime it can be refreshing to pay attention to what else is going on.
For courses in bird language, tracking and other naturalist skills, visit www.danpuplett.net
Jon Young’s book What the Robin Knows is essential reading for anyone with an interest in learning bird language.