Into the Wild: The language of birds

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I waltzed into a French 101 class during my sophomore year in college and expected to be fluent by the end of the semester. But instead, I only learned “chapeau,” the word for “hat,” and “allons-y!” which means “let’s go!” and was the name of our textbook.

Learning a new language is hard, and it turns out I suck at it.

But I didn’t give up entirely. (Well, I did give up learning French entirely.) At the end of college I began studying another language: the language of birds.

OK, it’s not a language per se, in the sense that I don’t know how they say “hat,” but it is a language in the sense that different bird sounds each have different meanings. I’m happy to teach you the basics. Allons-y!

Sound: Contact call. Translation: “You good? You still there?”

Pairs or groups of birds feeding together may lose track of each other in the foliage, and so make what are called “contact calls” to stay in touch. They’re just touching base to make sure everything’s OK.

Contact calls are typically short, one-syllable notes, sounding like “chat!” or “chip!” Many contact calls are too simple to be useful to identify the species making it, but they can be useful in at least letting you know a bird is nearby to see. Other contact calls, like the sharp, metallic “tink!” of the northern cardinal, or the dry “chep” of the common yellowthroat, are unique.

Sound: Flight call. Translation: “You good? You still there?”

Birds also need to keep track of each other in the air, and many birds call continually while in flight. High-flying nocturnal migrants make small sounds to each other to stay together in the dark, and you better believe there are birders who record these tiny sounds and use spectrographs to identify which species are flying overhead at night.

Other flight calls are easier to identify, like the honking of a Canada goose, the high-pitched whistle of cedar waxwings, or the “pee-tee-tee-tee” of the American goldfinch, which I promise sort of sounds like “potato chip.” Just trust me.

Sound: Begging. Translation: “Feed me, mom and dad!”

Baby birds make annoying noises in order to get their parents to pay attention to them, just like baby humans. These are unusual whines, typically heard in mid-to-late summer, when the babies have left the nest but still rely on their parents for food. Human parents out there will recognize these calls immediately.

Sound: Songs. Translation: “This area is mine!” or “Hey, baby, check me out!”

Songs are the most famous noises that birds make. They’re most often (but not always) sung by male birds claiming their territory and/or advertising themselves to potential mates.

Songs can be beautiful, like the evocative yodel of a common loon or the melodic fluting of a hermit thrush in the woods.

Many songs are, frankly, not beautiful – at least to our ears. The droning “song” of Maine’s beloved Atlantic puffin, for instance, is described in field guides as sounding like “chainsaw snores.”

Most songs are distinctive, though, and birders spend their lives learning all the different songs in order to identify birds without seeing them. Apps like the Sibley Guide to Birds or Larkwire can help you start sorting them all out.

Good luck, and au revoir!

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.