The Secrets of Bird Language

Robin after hooking to a perch - photo Stuart Wedge

One constant in the woods is the presence of our little feathered friends. They always seem to be active, scratching at the dirt, sitting on a stump, chirping from a branch. If we pay close attention to them, study their calls, how they react to each other and potentially dangerous situations, we can learn a great deal. Now, I’m not talking about the difference between a Great Tit and a Robin call here. I’m talking about their behaviour and body language, how the differences in these behaviours can inform us of the presence of something else. There are a number of different reactions to stimuli which can vary between species, however, the vast majority of these behaviours are common across the board.

The Sit Spot
To gain these insights for yourself, the absolute best way, is for you to carry out a daily sit spot. Going somewhere natural, that has birds, bushes, trees and maybe a feeder or two. Sit on a bench, on the ground or in a chair, get comfortable and relax. Take your mind off the job, off your home life and just sit and listen. Get to know the trees and bushes which surround you, make a map in your head of the surroundings and close your eyes for 60 seconds. This will help you focus your hearing, as you become more aware you will start to pick out the birds calling and singing off in the distance. After a short period, these sounds will become nearer and potentially close to you. This is due to your disturbance of the area as you moved to your sit spot. Think of skimming a stone across a flat body of water; as it moves across the surface, skimming with each bounce, a ripple is given off. Now think of you as the stone, each step causing a ripple going off into the environment. These ripples are picked up on by the birds and other wild animals and they will react to your presence by avoiding you as you move through the woods. When you get to your sit spot, the ripples reduce until your presence no longer causes ripples and the birds and animals return their focus to their daily needs. The fastest way to witness the language of the birds is to go to your sit spot daily, you might find your spot in your garden or in a park during your lunch break. Anywhere can be a sit spot, as long as there is nature and birds in the vicinity.

Jason during a sit spot on the Scottish Wildlife Adventure - photo Stuart Wedge
Jason during a sit spot on the Scottish Wildlife Adventure – photo Stuart Wedge

The 5 Voices
Every sound a bird makes can be broken down into 5 sub categories. These are Song, Call, Alarm, Juvenile Begging and Territorial Aggression. These can be used to help us identify baseline behaviours and changes within the baseline:

  • Song – The Singing voice, songs we can recognise. The normal happy baseline behaviour for the bird.
  • Call – Contact Calls between breeding pairs or between parent bird and young. This is normal behaviour, checking in on each other and making sure they’re safe.
  • Alarm – Defensive calls to warn of danger.
  • Juvenile Begging – The calls juvenile birds make when begging for food.
  • Territorial Aggression – The sounds made when defending their territory from invaders.
Juvenile Begging for and being fed by parent Great Tit - photo Stuart Wedge
Juvenile Begging for and being fed by parent Great Tit – photo Stuart Wedge

Baseline vs Alarm
Everything a bird does during its daily requirements can be categorised as Baseline Behaviours. These can include but are not limited to; gathering, foraging/scratching, singing, breeding, washing, dirt bathing, nesting and feeding. Any behaviour which is outside of the normal balance of daily requirements can be categorised as Alarm or Alarming behaviour. These are the things the bird does to keep safe from predators and potential threats within the environment. Studies into the Alarm behaviours have been carried out and broken down into these different behaviours. They are called ‘Shapes of Alarm’ as the behaviour is often not a call but a particular thing the bird does. This alarm behaviour is common for many different species and across the globe. An American Robin will react the same way to a fox trotting down a path as a blackbird would in the UK.

Blackbird alarming -  photo Stuart Wedge
Blackbird alarming – photo Stuart Wedge

Shapes of Alram
There are 12 shapes which have been observed within the Alarm behaviour. Each is recognisable and as I go through them, I encourage you to recollect within your own memory and experiences to try and pick out these behaviours that you have witnessed in the past.

Bird Plough
The bird plough is a super common alarm behaviour and I guarantee you’ve seen it in the past. Look at the Blackbird in the picture above. It’s sitting in the grass, aware of you approaching. What is it going to do as you get too close for comfort? It’s going to fly away from you. You are a threat to it’s safety and it’s going to remove itself from any potential risk that you may harm it. It will do this by flying away from you, normally in the direction you are moving to. Think of a snow plough as it clears snow from a road. The bird is the snow and you are the plough. This is the bird plough.

This can simply be defined as a lookout. A bird perching in the top of a tree, not singing or calling or carrying out any of the baseline behaviours. This bird has witnessed a threat, normally a bird of prey in hunting mode, potentially perched in a tree off in the distance. The sentinel bird spotted it, knows where it is and is actively watching it to make sure it is not the victim of a surprise attack. The sentinel may have made an alarm call when it initially saw the bird of prey but not necessarily.

Edge of Alarm
This shape is not really a shape, however, it is connected to Sentinel. The edge of alarm is the area where the behaviour is no longer effected by the cause of alarm. In other words, where normal baseline behaviour continues. This is often to the rear of the Sentinel bird, everything behind it is safe as they have a lookout watching the threat and everyone else can carry on as normal, taking care of their daily needs.

Zone of Oppression
The area between the bird of prey and the sentinel is known as the zone of oppression. Every small bird within this area is potential food and will act as such. Cowering under bushes and hiding under benches. They will often fall completely silent and not make any sound. This lack of bird noise where it was once bustling is almost instantaneous and can be quite unsettling for us humans. To be somewhere that the noise is instantly gone is not usual. When the bird of prey eventually moves on, the smaller birds will start to behave normally again bringing the area back to baseline.

This is a very common shape that you will have seen. Think of the British Robin, a famously beautiful and curious little garden bird. Every Robin has a territory, often the boundary of which is marked by a wire fence or hedgerow. If you enter the territory, the Robin will want you to leave, however, it doesn’t want to endanger itself in the process. So to encourage you to move on, it will hook up to a branch or fence post, look back at you and make a call. As you get close it will hook along to another post, look back at you and call. You may simply be walking along a path next to it’s boundary but it’s trying to get you to leave. When you have left it’s territory, it will do a loop back into its area, safe.

Kestrel perching - photo Stuart Wedge
Kestrel perching – photo Stuart Wedge

Popcorn is what happens when a number of birds, who are feeding or gathering at ground level pop up to a low branch out of reach of a passing threat. Commonly seen when a fox is moving along a track or path in travelling mode and not hunting, or a couple of deer trotting through. The birds know it’s not hunting and poses less of a threat as they see this fox at the same time every morning on the way back to its den. They still want to get out of its way so as not to become an easy meal but they don’t want to waste the energy to fly a long distance when they can just pop up out of reach.

Umbrella or Parabolic
This shape is not so common but can be seen in a number of situations. Think of a cat hunting slowly in the bushes or an owl caught out in the daylight by a mob of Jackdaws. These are predators, capable of eating the birds. A great way to stay safe is to keep watching the animal from a safe distance (sometimes only a few feet), make lots of noise to alert others and to try and annoy or scare off the predator. When one bird starts alarming for a hunting cat, others will join it. All alarming from a relatively safe distance. The shape that these birds make is parabolic or umbrella shaped above the predator. In the case of the hunting Cat, the umbrella would move with it and the Owl would have a static umbrella.

Robin after hooking to a perch - photo Stuart Wedge
Robin after hooking to a perch – photo Stuart Wedge

The Weasel alarm is the same as the Umbrella alarm, however, the difference is how it moves. Weasels tend to remain hidden for the most part, often using hedgerows and walls to remain in cover and not alert the birds. If a Weasel is spotted the alarm will start and the umbrella will form. The Weasel will then be lost from view and the alarm will stop until the animal is spotted again. The Umbrella will then form again but above the new location. This will happen numerous times seemingly with no direction of travel as it will move around one area many times.

Have you ever been in the woods, park or garden and a bird has flown past you like a bullet? Birds don’t expend energy without good reason and will use the least expensive form of energy getting from one place to the next. If they are moving at excessive speeds then they are running for their lives. Something, maybe a Sparrow Hawk, has either tried to grab it or is in the process of trying.

Often after the bullet, the fleeing bird will ditch into the undergrowth were it can hide and be safe.

Feral Cat Hunting - photo Stuart Wedge
Feral Cat Hunting – photo Stuart Wedge

Safety Barrier
Think back now to the bird of prey perched in the tree. That bird may stay perched in that tree for a number of hours. The smaller birds know its there but they must feed to keep up their energy so they can do what they need to do. Getting desperate, they decide to try and grab a few bites somewhere safe. There’s a human on a sit spot! I could feed close to the human and the hawk won’t attack me…. This situation happens and the smaller birds will choose the lesser of two evils and feed close to humans and stay safe from the hawks.

Tunnel of Silence
The hawk decides to fly away from the perch, through the woods and the little birds are scared. They stop what they are doing, sit quietly not making a sound. As the hawk gets to a new area of the woods, those birds do the same and again into the next area. The hawk flying through the woods has caused a tunnel of silence by its flying presence. As humans, we can pick up of these differences and tune into what is happening.

As Tracking Instructors we use these skills to help us here in the UK to know what is going on in the woods where we are teaching. In areas where we go on Expeditions such as the Yukon and South Africa on our Game Ranger Experience, these skills are put to use daily by experienced instructors and guides to keep our groups safe from potentially dangerous encounters with large game such as Rhinos, Elephants and Grizzly Bears. This knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation of indigenous peoples throughout the globe and has only recently been documented for the western world to learn. Even though this language is observable, most people will never know or care to understand. I encourage you to watch the birds behaviour and see if you can pick out some of these shapes discussed. If you would like to receive this knowledge in a learning environment and have chance to experience it first hand then please take a look at our tracking courses where you will be guided through the weekend and these behaviours will be pointed out as they are seen or heard.

What the Robin Knows – Jon Young
Bird Language DVD – Jon Young

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