Birding: The meaning of bird calls |

Birding: The meaning of bird calls

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist

It’s early morning and you’re out taking a walk. Every now and then you see birds, and their sounds fill the air. Do you wonder which birds are making which sounds, or what they are saying to each other?

Most birds draw on a repertoire, or variety of sounds, to communicate. Typical sounds fall into two main groups: relatively long and elaborate songs used to impress and attract a mate or declare territorial boundaries; and briefer calls, typically used to identify family members, announce the presence of a predator, or convey information about food.

Once again I have selected a topic which cannot be printed in one article. This week I will talk about bird calls, and then bird songs in the next article.

Bird calls are used for interacting with family members, alerting one another to the presence of predators, keeping in touch while flying, or sharing information about food.

Birds use contact calls to keep in touch as they fly, feed, or go about their day. Contact notes are often short and high-pitched.

The contact call of some species is sometimes its most conspicuous vocalization. Mates can match each other’s calls, helping them to identify their partners, even at a distance or in a large flock.

Many birds use contact calls to keep in touch while migrating. For example, geese honk as they fly. Birds that migrate at night may use nocturnal flight calls.

Many birds utter alarm calls in response to a nearby predator. Some birds even use different calls for warning about ground and aerial predators. For example, birds may use a thin, high-pitched call for a hawk or falcon, prompting nearby birds to dive for cover. They may use a lower pitched, scolding sound when warning of a snake, cat, or other ground based predator. By using alarm calls, birds let the predator know it has been sighted. Having lost the advantage of surprise, the predator may decide to give up the attack. Alarm calls also warn other birds that the predator is there. This may help because birds will often mob predators that are near their nests or young. When birds of many species join in, they have a better chance of chasing the predator away. Alarm calls also help by warning the caller’s young, mates, or relatives to take cover.

Some birds use a found food call, too. Keeping track of a moving swarm of insects may be difficult for a single bird. Attracting other birds may improve its chances of continuing to follow that food.

Baby birds use begging calls to let their parents know when they are hungry. Many songbirds continue to use begging calls even several weeks after they leave the nest, and their parents oblige them. Juvenile Cliff Swallows beg distinctively enough for their own parents to recognize them individually. Cliff Swallows often nest in colonies with hundreds or thousands of other swallows, so it’s important for them to be able to find and recognize their own young after they leave the nest.

There are two other things I want to mention in today’s column. The first is the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) and the second is a reminder to get your birdhouses up soon.


Feb. 14 is Valentine’s Day, but it’s also the beginning of the Great Backyard Bird Count. It’s fun, easy and also beneficial to birds and science. It’s a study that helps better define bird ranges, populations, migration pathways, and habitat needs. Sponsored by Wild Birds Unlimited, the 17th annual GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada. It takes place Feb. 14-17.

Participants count birds in their backyards, local parks or wherever they happen to be. Those tallies are then reported online through the website or This links you with scientists, providing feedback through graphics, animated maps, and other regularly updated information.

Almost 135,000 checklists were submitted in 2013, and more are expected this year. Show your love of birds and take part in the GBBC! You can obtain more information online or by calling me at 970-242-2843.


Believe it or not, bluebirds and chickadees are now scoping out neighborhoods to raise a family. They are looking for potential home sites (nesting boxes) and reliable food sources (bird feeders). Make sure you get your nesting boxes up soon so you have a better chance of attracting a family of birds to your backyard.

Thanks again to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for some of the information in this article.

Local bird expert and GJ Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard bird-feeding experience possible. Email your bird-feeding and birding questions to and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column.

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