In his book, What The Robin Knows, author Jon Young shares a key into learning the language of birds – understanding the “Five Voices” that birds use to communicate with each other.
By learning to recognize the feel and context for these different voices, an observer can learn to decipher – often with amazing accuracy – a variety of cues, including the presence of danger (such as hawks, snakes, cats and other predators). The Five Voices give bird watchers a deeper view into the secret world of the birds.
Science and audio editor for the book, Dan Gardoqui, has worked with Lang Elliot and Nature Sound Studios to produce an online audio library to accompany the book, including the voices of over 15 common songbirds. The library also contains a number of vocalizations from helpful game birds, corvids, and mammals.
Listen to a selection of the audio tracks below to start your journey into the Five Voices of the birds right now:
(American Robin) Bird song, in general, depicts a “baseline” state of harmony. Threats such as a hunting Cooper’s hawk or other dangers are usually not immediately present when birds have the luxury of being able to sing.
2. Contact Calls
(American Goldfinch) Mated pairs often use call notes to maintain contact when foraging.
3. Territorial Aggression Calls
(Dark-eyed Junco) Sometimes, especially in the spring, you may hear two birds birds – typically of the same species – facing each other in a noisy interaction. At first this might be misinterpreted as a general alarm. With more attention, you will find that the other species in the area are continuing their songs, unperturbed. This is likely a case of territorial aggression and does not represent a true universal alarm.
4. Begging Calls
(Song Sparrow) Juvenile birds can make quiet a lot of noise when they beg for food form their parents, either when still in the nest or as fledglings. The young that are most likely to survive to adulthood are those that learn to be still and quiet when danger approaches.
5. Alarm Calls
(Carolina Wren) Alarm calls are made when danger approaches. There are many subtleties to the art of interpreting alarm calls to deduce the source of alarm. Pay attention to the tone and frequency of repetition when listening to alarm calls. To help separate general alarm from territorial aggression, watch for multiple species alarming in the same vicinity.
There is much more to be said about each of these categories; remember that these patterns represent tendencies that can help you start to understand more about the lives of the birds. Now that you’ve gaine ad introduction to the basics of the five voices, you’re ready to peruse our online audio library.
Listen to examples of the Five Voices for a variety of birds:
How to Understand the WTRK Audio Files
Dan has categorized the 75 audio files (as listed in Appendix D in WTRK – pages 199-206) by species and by vocalization type (e.g. song / contact / aggression / begging / alarm).
- If you choose “By species”, the online audio listing matches, track # by track #, the listings in Appendix D.
- If you choose “By Vocalization Type”, the online audio listings are organized by the 5 Voices, yet the track #’s are consistent with the listings in Appendix D.
About the Audio:
This audio collection includes many of the baseline voices of backyard birds, such as cardinal songs and chickadee calls, and life-or-death recordings of birds in the presence of imminent danger. It also includes the voices of non-avian species whose calls can be helpful in detecting sneaky predators (such as chipmunks and squirrels), as well as tricky mimics who may throw the budding bird language student a curve ball now and then.
It’s important to note that many birds (including some we use as examples in the book) have “graded” vocalizations – that is, vocalizations that sound very similar but may vary in duration, intensity, pitch, intonation, or other features, but that have different purposes. While graded calls may seem to complicate the five vocalizations construct, they actually fit well within its boundaries.
For example, the tut of an American robin can fall into one of three categories—companion call, aggression, or alarm—depending on the context of the vocalization, most notably volume, frequency, and duration; body language; and position of the bird. We’ve demarcated typically graded vocalizations with a “†” for your ease in understanding.
(All recordings © Lang Elliott, NatureSound Studio, All Rights Reserved).