When I started birding, each time I heard a bird sound I wondered “are they communicating with each other or just making random sounds?”. I did some research on the topic and this article is all about my findings.
So, can birds communicate with each other?
Yes, they can. They even do eavesdropping to know about the presence of a threat in the surroundings and to communicate those to the other birds in the same flock.
Let’s see how they communicate and how diverse their communications are.
Birds are the best vocal animals on the planet and there are only insects and very few mammal species are there to challenge birds in terms of vocalization.
If you just listen to the sounds in your backyard and start listing the different natural sounds you heard, you will end up with a long list of bird names, a few insects, and one or two mammal species (probably squirrels) for sure.
But during night times insects are the dominant noisy group that takes the place of birds, even though you can hear a hoot here and there.
Why Are Birds Calling to Each Other?
They utter a call to communicate with each other. The primary objective of a call of any animal is just to communicate.
This could be communicating their presence in a particular location, communicating with a member of the flock, and communicating with other species.
Almost all the bird species can emit a call to do some sort of communication. From gobbling turkeys, hooting owls, and squawking parrots to chippering songbirds, they perform some sort of vocalization.
Interestingly more than half of the bird species in the world can construct a complex song with different notes which they sing to attract their mate and defend their territories. We termed them songbirds.
Birds generate their sound from a ‘syrinx’ a vocal organ. Because of this, many experienced bird watchers can identify a bird from its call, and this is popular among birders as “birding by ear”.
Among many bird species, male birds usually sing the song and females emit contact calls. Sometimes females do participate with male birds’ territorial song by adding a few extra notes at the end. For example, a Sri Lanka Spurfowl male bird starts singing and females join it at the end to finish the song.
What Are the Different Kinds of Bird Calls?
We can categorize bird calls depending on their behavioral context.
At an early age, the fledglings emit begging calls to get attention from the parent birds. Often those begging calls differ from species to species.
The intensity of the begging call may help the parent bird to identify the most starving chick at the nest. Thus, the begging calls are some modes of communicating between parents vs. chicks.
The younger birds do have a different tone of begging calls such as more frequently emitting calls when parent birds come to the nest with food items and single note low-frequency notes emitting when parent birds are absent. This could be different from species to species.
Most the songbirds emit spectacular song/ territorial calls during dusk and dawn which they usually use to mark their territories and to communicate with the close neighbor of the same species.
Basically, during the rest of the day, they do contact calls, the most frequently heard call of bird species. Contact calls are useful to communicate about the exact place a bird lives in.
Specially flocking birds such as chickadees, babblers, fulvettas, etc. use to emit contact calls more frequently than other birds. Among the songbirds, some can construct very complex songs to communicate with their mate.
The complexity and the length of the song may help to mate with a female thus male birds try to perform the best singing performance to win a female.
Sometimes they can learn different sounds and rhythms from the outside environments to increase the complexity of the song. One of the best examples is Lyrebird. The Lyrebird can construct a song with more than 50 different syllables (different patterns).
Many birds can emit alarm calls to communicate about the presence of a predator or communicate about a threat to the flocking members or other bird species.
And it is scientifically proven that birds do eavesdropping on other birds’ calls, especially on alarm calls. Because it is important to get away from a potential predator. It is found that some species can emit different alarm calls for different predators.
For example, the Black-capped Chickadee can emit different alarm calls to aerial predators such as Hawks and Owls as well as ground predators such as cats. Oriental Magpie Robins also emit different alarm calls for differing threat situations.
Some species do false alarm calls emitting just to frighten other birds and get an advantage over opportunistic feeding. The best example is Drongos. It was a published scientific fact that Drongos emit false alarm calls when they see other birds have found insect prey.
Once they emit a false alarm call, the other bird quickly drops the insect caught by itself and seeks cover immediately. Then the Drongo can steal the insect prey to feed on.
Some birds emit threatening calls just to scare away minor predators to protect their young. Those threatening calls often with high pitches and loud calls that are good enough to annoy a predator.
The best example is Red-wattled Lapwing. When it detects a potential threat approaching its nesting site it suddenly takes off and starts to utter very loud calls which you can hear for several hundred meters (~ 1 km).
Most of the bulbuls, shrikes, wood shrikes, coucals, and raptors also emit threatening calls but especially when they are in trouble. Sometimes someone could mistake these threatening calls for a stress call which they emit when they are caught in a snare or on a mist net.
The threatening call is a phenomenon where birds try to communicate with not only birds but also with other animal groups
Birds also do mimic calls, where they copy contact calls from other birds, sometimes calls from other animals. The best example is Drongo. I have heard they emit the call of a cat apart from 15 other bird species.
Leafbirds are also famous for mimicking other birds calls. But the exact purpose of these kinds of mimics is still not well understood. As previously mentioned, Lyrebird is a kind of star in mimic calls. It can even emit man-made sounds as well such as camera shutter clicking sound, chain saw operation sounds, and many more.
Birds also communicate their anger by emitting agonistic calls. When we see birds fight with each other for territorial problems or over a food source or for winning a mate, they utter these calls.
We can simply say that birds utter agonistic calls when they are in bad mood upon something. These calls are quite common during the breeding season when most of the male birds fight with each other to prove their strength over others.
For some species, you may find that the difference between agonistic calls and threatening calls is not that obvious but if you analyze the detailed properties of recordings of such calls you will realize how different those calls are in terms of sound pitch, frequencies, and syllable structures.
Another interesting phenomenon in nature about the communication of birds is mobbing calls. Mobbing calls are a collection of calls emitted by more than two different bird species or more to annoy and chased away unusual larger birds such as Owls, raptors, and nest predators (Coucals, some Koels) from their usual feeding areas or nesting areas.
It is amazing how they gather and cooperate to win a common goal. Usually, babblers, sunbirds, bulbuls, and flowerpeckers get together to perform mobbing calls.
Birds are capable of communicating with each other. They make quite different calls to mark their territories, communicate their presence, inform a threat, threaten a minor predator, or even when they are in a bad mood.
And, birds are capable of doing eavesdropping to know about the presence of a threat and communicate those to the other birds in the same flock.
So, if you are more vigilant about your surroundings you will be able to find those fine-scale different call types quite common among many birds.