Alert Grackles

Bird Conversations

My last stop on my summer journey from Carson City to Tucson, after a brief stay in Pinetop, Arizona, was the San Francisco River in New Mexico.  There is a designated birding area south of Glenwood that provides a parking lot and access to the river.

It was mid-day and sweltering when the dog and I stopped there in mid-July.  Clouds were building and I could hear thunder in the distance.  The banks of the river were wet and it looked like it had rained in the last day or two – perhaps even the storm that halted me in Holbrook, Arizona (see “Knowing your limits”).  With the heat and humidity, and frequent rains, this little stretch of river became a lush, nearly tropical paradise.  The air was full of the sounds of Yellow Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, kingbirds, hummingbirds, and Common Mergansers.

San Francisco River, near Glenwood, NM

The lush San Francisco River, near Glenwood, NM

I recently read a very interesting book by Jon Young, entitled, “What the robin knows: how birds reveal the secrets of the natural world.”  Jon is not a scientist, but is a very astute observer and naturalist.  In his book, he highlights the many vocalizations that birds make, and suggests that by paying attention to what vocalizations the birds are using, we can get an insight into what is going on in the bird’s world – which often includes us.  Most birds have many types of calls and songs; to attract mates and defend territory, to stay in touch with relatives, for juveniles to attract the attention of the adults, and several types of alarm calls.  It is this last group of calls that he really focuses on.  Birds are vulnerable to different types of predators – falcons and other accipiters nab them in the air or while perched on branches; cats and foxes grab them if they are foraging on the ground.  Like many mammals (see Squirrel Chatter and Listening to Prairie Dogs), birds have different alarm calls for different types of predators.  One alarm for a falcon might say the equivalent of “dive deep into the brush” while an alarm for a lazy cat sauntering by might say the equivalent of “I see a cat – be alert but don’t panic.”

For the birds in our immediate neighborhoods, we are also part of their environments.  They watch us, perhaps much more than we watch them.   They also watch and listen to each other, constantly eavesdropping on their neighbor’s conversations to gain information on what is going on in their world.  Not just neighbors of the same species, but all of their neighbors.  If one bird gives an alarm, they all pay attention.  If the neighbors are singing like there’s no tomorrow, odds are that there are no predators in the immediate area.  Being able to eavesdrop in this fashion means more time for foraging and bringing up chicks than if each bird had to be vigilant all of the time.  Birds and mammals even listen to each other – birds often respond to squirrel alarms and vice versa.  But they also have to know each other well enough to know who is likely to give false alarms, and which neighbor is the most reliable.

“…it is never just the robins communicating with the other robins, the song sparrows with the other song sparrows, the juncos with the other juncos. In the yard and in the trees, it’s everyone communicating with (because they are eavesdropping on) everyone else—spring, summer, fall, and winter: ripples within ripples, a vast web with many seams and confusions; concentric rings bouncing off concentric rings; subtle sounds, subtle scents, subtle movements.”

I’ve noticed while recording birds that if I leave my recorder and move at least 100 feet away, after about 15-20 minutes the sounds of the birds gets closer and louder as more birds start singing.  This 15-20 minute latency period is pretty consistent.  Even when I didn’t notice that I was having a big impact on the birds, apparently just my presence was altering their behavior.  Jon Young also mentions this in his book.  He advocates finding a “sit spot”, where you can sit for 20-30 minutes at a time, several days a week or more.  He suggests keeping a journal, and every 10 minutes documenting which birds you see and hear, and what types of calls and behaviors they are doing.  He says even in urban areas, it may take at least 15 minutes for the birds to relax and get back to their own business.

Paying attention to bird language can tell us a lot about what is going on around us.  Many of the birds we see on a daily basis are not transient individuals just moving through our yards, but are residents, either year-round or perhaps just the breeding season.  This is their neighborhood.  I know when I was banding birds, we would often recapture the same banded individuals year after year – they returned from their wintering grounds to nest in the same area each year.  They know every tree and branch in their neighborhood, and they know their neighbors.  When I hear a bunch of birds singing at once, I often get overwhelmed trying to identify one voice in the crowd.  But after reading, “What the robin knows,” I’m going to be paying more attention to not just who’s calling, but what they might actually be saying.

Because birds are so dependent on the sounds their neighbors make, it means they are sensitive to excessive noise in their environments.  Many birds will not nest near roadways, presumably because it affects their hearing and ability to detect predators.   Loud machinery, aircraft, and many other noises can be very detrimental to the wildlife nearby.  Noise not only affects our health, but that of our wild neighbors.

See also, “The importance of bird song.”


Recorded with a Sony PCM-M10 and Audio Technica AT2022 mic with Felmicamps preamp.


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