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Archive - October 2019

Can Birds Talk to Each Other?
Communication is important to birds, especially in places where they cannot see very far. For example, birds that live on the forest floor, in grasslands or on the shore of wetlands may have trouble seeing predators or even their own young among the leaves or plant stems. They also need communication for defending a territory, finding a mate and other important activities, like migration and feeding. Birds “talk” to each other by making sounds and other noises and by their behaviors.

What are Bird Songs?
Songs are specific patterns of notes repeated with few variations. They are used to attract mates and mark the territory needed for producing and rearing young.

Each species has its own specific song or songs. Some birds have over a dozen calls and songs (northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis). Some birds can mimic the songs of other birds (gray catbird Dumetella carolinensis, northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos), humans and our products (European starlings, Sturnus vulgaris can imitate a car alarm). Just like humans, bird songs have regional dialects. Some birds know how to sing instinctively. Others must listen to songs of adult birds of their kind and practice the calls before perfecting them.

Can Birds Talk to Us?
Birds aren’t really talking to us with their songs, but if you learn bird songs, you can identify a bird by its song. Here are some descriptions in words of what a few bird songs sound like to people.

white-throated sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis poor Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody
yellow warbler Setophaga petechia sweet sweet sweet I’m so sweet
American robin Turdus migratorius cheerio cheery me cheery me
American goldfinch Spinus tristis potato chip – potato chip
red-winged blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus konk-la-ree
white-breasted nuthatch Sitta carolinensis yank-yank
red-eyed vireo Vireo olivaceus going up- coming down

What are Bird Calls?
When alerting others of danger, birds “call” instead of singing. Calls are shorter than songs and not as complex in pattern. They can be made by the same structures in a bird as the song, or they may be made by other body parts. Calls are also made when birds are feeding or migrating. Precocial (independent) young communicate with their parents through a location call. When a covey of northern bobwhite, Colinus virginianus, is split up, they locate each other and rejoin the group through a gathering call. Humans use birds’ calls when hunting some species of birds to imitate the calls of those birds and draw the birds toward them. These types of calls can be made by the person or through an artificial calling device.

How Do Birds Make Sounds?
Birds do not have vocal cords. To produce sounds, vibrations are sent across the syrinx (voice box) of abird. The more muscles a bird has attached to the syrinx, the more types of sounds it can make. For instance, northern mockingbirds have many muscles and can produce a variety of sounds, while rock pigeons', Columba livia, singular pair of muscles results in only the single "coo" sound.

What Other Ways Do Birds Communicate?
Many other types of communications are used by birds, too. Hungry nestlings peck at their parents' beak or open their mouth widely to beg for food. Male ruffed grouse, Bonasa umbellus, "drum" and greater prairie-chickens, Tympanuchus cupido, "boom" to attract a mate. Sandhill cranes, Antigone canadensis, and American woodcocks, Scolopax minor, have elaborate mating dances and flights. A male wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, will spread its tail and drop and "rattle" its wings to attract a mate.

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