Why Listen to the Birds

A little birdie told me something scary was right outside my window. He didn’t say it in words, of course, or at least not in English. But it was clear from that robin’s incessant Cheep! Cheep! CHEEP! – so shrill, so unlike his cheerful melodic song – that danger was afoot. A sparrow’s harsh CHIRP corroborated.

It turns out, songbirds do a lot more than just sing. They coo plaintive begging calls as nestlings and fledglings. They whisper sweet contact calls between mates or among friends to keep tabs on each other while foraging. Breeding birds engage in dramatic chattering territorial spats reminiscent of playground posturing or in more extreme cases, bar fights.

Attending to this medley of vocalizations and associated behaviors can teach you much about the goings-on of your wild neighbors, in tawdry soap operas and epic fairytales broadcast far and wide. If birds are present, bird language is happening. You just have to tune in.

Which brings us to the thrillers.

I didn’t used to hear bird alarms. I was a bird watcher from an early age, but aside from the few songs I recognized and enjoyed like the perky cardinals and the moody mourning dove’s, I didn’t listen to these urgent announcements, this emergency broadcast system of the
forest. Unlike my ancestors, whose lives depended on knowing where their predators might be as well as how to be sneaky enough to hunt their own food, I don’t need to listen.

But once I did? I spied an owl dozing in the lone fir tree in a city park as oblivious pedestrians passed by below. I discovered a housecat stalking a fallen nestling jay. A weasel popping up from beneath the weed cloth in a blueberry patch. A friend attempting and failing to
sneak up behind me. All broadcast by the songbirds.

And one afternoon, right outside my window, a mother coyote leading two frisky prancing pups through my suburban yard to the woodland beyond. I may not need to listen to the birds, but I’m so glad I do.

Want to learn more about Bird Language?

• Complete this free Bird Language eCourse
• Join our free ongoing Bird Language Club
• Read What the Robin Knows by Jon Young
• Or, take a deep dive into nature connection with our 9-month Immersion program

Wilderness Awareness School