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How do Birds Communicate? What Science Tells Us

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three birds singing

If you’ve ever heard a beautiful birdsong or saw parrot that seems a little too smart to be true, you might have wondered about bird communication. Birds have a vast array of ways that they can communicate with one another, making studying their language a fascinating field. We still have lots of questions about bird “language”, but some of the answers we do have are intriguing. 

hummingbird divider

Birdsong and Bird Calls

The backbone of bird communication is the bird call. This can refer to any vocalization—a chirp, a squawk, a trill, or a song. Most bird species have many different types of calls. The most famous bird calls are from songbirds—a category of perching birds that can make elaborate vocalizations. These songs generally come from male birds and act as a signal to let females know that they are available and sometimes to keep other males from staking a claim.

But there’s a lot more to bird calls than just songs. While songs are mostly used in finding a mate, birds have a variety of other calls that mean different things. Many bird species have different calls that signal different types of predators or even tell what predators are doing. The call for a fox walking through the forest and a fox attacking a nest might be different. Birds can also have “calls to action” that signal for the whole flock to come and drive off a threat.

blue jay birds perching
Image Credit: Karel Bock, Shutterstock

Do Birds Have Words?

With so much complexity, we have to wonder if birds have language or words. So far, studies have shown that different sounds have different meanings, but they don’t map to traditional grammar and syntax the way that human language does. For example, one study showed that one species of bird, the zebra finch, struggled to tell if a birdsong was in the wrong order, but they could tell if there was a minor difference in timbre. That suggests that the sound and tone mattered but that the order didn’t really matter equally.

barn swallow bird's nest
Image Credit: Olexandr Panchenko, Shutterstock

Bird Body Language

Birds supplement their vocal language with changes in behavior that act as a form of communication. One of the most obvious displays of body language is in the elaborate courtship rituals that birds put on. These rituals range from special dances and flight patterns to using small gifts to signal interest. Birds also have specific body language that tells others to back off—like beating wings and fluffing feathers.

hummingbird divider Putting it Together

As you can see, we’re just scratching the surface of what birds can do. It’s easy to isolate specific bird calls and actions and figure out what they are saying. But we still don’t understand very much about why certain sounds mean what they do or how birds learn their languages. There’s some evidence that bird calls are taught, not just instinctual. Some species of birds can learn to copy other songs they hear, and many bird species will have slight regional differences that make up “local dialects” in different parts of their habitat. But if we want to decode the secrets of bird communication, we still have work to do.

Featured Image Credit: TAUFIK ARDIANSYAH, Shutterstock

About the Author Chelsie Frasier

Chelsie is a freelance writer who is passionate about pets, animals and all things optical. She currently lives in rural Alberta, Canada with her husband and two sons, and is a pet parent to a Border Collie, four cats and four horses.