Article contributed by Jon Young, author of What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal Nature's Secrets
Understanding the interspecies chatter that surrounds us in our backyard can be fun and rewarding. There are a few keys to this learning journey that can be practiced right outside your door.
The first thing to learn is who are the most likely players in the game, and how they are most likely to behave in various circumstances. This can be learned through observing and listening to these neighbors. Start by focusing just on a few individuals of a species at a time.
In my backyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, I see juncos every day feeding near my back door. At this time of year, it happens to be a male and a female nesting pair. I also see and hear Common Ravens, American Crows, American Robins, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Hermit Warblers, Hutton’s Vireos, Black-throated Green Warblers, Steller's Jays, and the occasional Acorn Woodpeckers. When I'm lucky, once a week or so, the Pileated Woodpecker pays a visit.
I watch these regulars and slowly get to know how all of these birds behave in their everyday lives. Ask these questions:
- What do their maintenance behaviors look like?
- When are they in a relaxed state feeling safe to follow these maintenance behaviors?
- When are they looking and sounding more anxious or tense or downright terrified?
There are behaviors that we can look for that tell us that the birds and animals are feeling relatively secure. We call these patterns “baseline behaviors.” The Dark-eyed Junco pair are hopping around and feeding in a little patch of grass and wild plants. They seem to be picking up seeds. I know that these juncos are relatively comfortable.
The Acorn Woodpeckers are chattering among themselves, flying about the tree and doing aerial displays around a large, old Douglas Fir tree. They are fairly relaxed.
The Steller’s Jay is over in a live oak tree, and nearby another one. I suspect this is a nesting pair. These two are hopping from branch to branch. I see one flying with an acorn from east to west across my view. Both then land in the Douglas fir tree and one starts pecking at the acorn. Again, relative comfort, or baseline.
Later on that same morning, a Raven flies in and lands on the same Douglas fir on a large dead branch. He puffs up the feathers around his neck and his head, and makes these displays, bobbing and voicing really lovely sounds. I believe that Raven is in baseline.
One of the jays is preening its feathers, an indication of baseline. At the same moment, there are other birds that are feeding in the trees: the Hermit Warbler and the Black-throated green Warbler. Both are singing and flying around and feeding near the ends of the branches of a group of tan oaks.
These are all maintenance behaviors, things that are done by birds when they are feeling relatively safe. Others maintenance behaviors include: dust bathing, water bathing, anting, nest-building and more. When the birds around my home are comfortable, relatively speaking, their voices can indicate their general state of relaxation.
Baseline Voices 1 & 2: Song & Contact Calls
There are vocalizations--“voices of birds”--that tell us a bird is feeling relatively safe right now. Two of the baseline voices that we count on for deciphering bird language are the song, and the companion call (or contact call). When the male bird is singing, it’s feeling comfortable. Perhaps that’s why we feel good when we hear them? Another baseline vocalization, or “voice” is heard when two or more birds are offering contact calls to each other while feeding and engaged in other maintenance behaviors.
Baseline Voice 3: Territorial Aggression
When another male comes into the territory of the junco pair in my yard, the male junco gets a little puffed up and aggressive toward the intruder. He flies after the intruding junco and he issues an intense vocalization as he chases that other junco away.
Even though this might seem like an alarm, it’s only alarming to the juncos involved. This is called “territorial aggression”. If the junco is scared for his life, he would not bother to chase the intruder away. Though to us as observers, this exertion is energetic, and might even feel like an alarm to us. Yes, it’s still a sign that this junco pair was safe enough to do something that temporarily takes awareness away: to chase another out of the territory.
Perhaps you have seen American Robins tussling around the neighborhood where you live in this way. It’s easy to hear their feathers flapping against the leaves of the trees and bushes where the conflict is happening. They are usually calling out loudly as well. This may sound pretty dramatic. As you pay attention to the other songbirds in the area at this same time, you notice that the song sparrow is still singing. The Spotted Towhee is still singing.
The robins’ ‘alarming’ behavior wasn't a sign that there was danger from a predator. The robin didn't want someone in his or her territory. I've seen female robins do the same thing chasing scrub jays and Steller's jays out of the yard near her nest. The female robin is not going to do that if she feels threatened for her life. She's going to do that when everything else is going well immediately around her.
Baseline Voice 4: Juvenile Begging
Unlike the previous three Baseline voices, this vocalization sometimes indicates things are okay, and sometimes it doesn't. When you see juvenile birds, following their parents around fluttering their wings and asking to be fed, their behavior is accompanied by the voice known as “juvenile begging”. The reason juvenile begging is not as reliable for indicating baseline has to do with the young birds’ inexperience. A juvenile bird doesn't know yet about the dangers their parents are well aware of. The parent bird might issue an alarm call warning its offspring, and fly into the bush, continuing to give an insistent call.
The juvenile will sometimes remain in the open and flutter its wings and beg,
“Hey, where'd you go? I'm hungry.”
With very mixed feelings, I've been witness to what happens when five junco fledglings haven't learned the lesson--in very short succession. Within just a few minutes, a Cooper's hawk has flown back and forth to the same spot and literally caught every one of them. I found this heartbreaking and exciting. I knew these young juncos from seeing them and their parents every day for many days. And also, I think the Cooper’s hawk felt really happy that it was able to find food that easy for its young and hungry nestlings.
This story illustrates why we don't totally count on the juvenile begging call as an indication that everything is baseline.
Look at the Bigger Context
The one thing that really helps in deciphering between baseline states and alarmed states is to look at the combination of the sounds and behaviors of the local birds and animals taken together in the context of the moment. The familiar species that are always or often in your yard will show you what’s going on when you pay attention long enough.
If most of the birds are singing, contact calling, or doing maintenance behavior--likely the squirrels and chipmunks as well--you can be fairly certain things are baseline. Everybody within that zone is currently feeling safe and free to take care of the things needed for daily life: feeding themselves and/or their young, setting up territories, preening, and whatever is on that list of maintenance behavior.
The Fifth Voice: Alarm!
The voice of alarm is not one thing. Alarm is on a continuum from lightly agitated, to startled, to respectful avoidance, and finally to fully concerned for their life in that moment. Alarm is also contextual surrounding a disturbance to a limited distance. Just beyond the zone of disturbance, there is often baseline happening.
Agitation occurs when I walk out the door without thinking, and suddenly surprise and disturb the juncos. They'll twitter as they fly off. I simply didn't notice them. It feels as though they're complaining at me. Yet, the robin just over there is still singing and the jay is still flying around with acorns, while the acorn woodpeckers are still making jovial calls. The alarm created by my sudden emergence from the door wasn't the end of the world for the larger context in that moment.
Irritation occurs if the neighbor’s cat is moving through the yard. On the same day, with all the same players, the juncos will fly up and start giving their alarm with relatively intense calls. If the robins are around, they might fly over near the juncos and cat, and join in with the scolding. There might be two or three species of birds complaining about the cat.
At the same time, the Hermit Warbler will keep singing up in the tree, and, the black throated green warbler as well. And, there's a robin 100 yards away singing. It will likely just keep singing. The cat alarm is localized. And, it's different from the alarm I created when I flushed the juncos.
Respectful Avoidance. Later, a red tailed hawk flies in and lands in the Doug fir tree. The crows are cawing loudly and dive-bombing. Like the birds on the cat, they are mobbing the hawk. This might stop the juncos from doing maintenance behavior, or it might simply move them to a safer location a little further away, and once landed there, they'll continue in baseline behaviors.
All of these everyday backyard examples are relative and localized in different ways. The level of perceived safety and comfort shifts and changes depending on who enters the scene, the intent of the visitor, and for how long they stay.
The game of bird language is played by watching and listening for the change or the shift in and out of maintenance behaviors and indicated by the change of voices.
See what you can learn from going out in your backyard several times a day and just sitting for 10 to 20 minutes right outside your back door. I have a chair right outside my door. During this time of social isolation, I spend more time sitting and observing in my backyard than I have ever done in my life. And, I've learned so much about my neighbors with feathers and how they interact with one another.
When I first moved in, I wondered,
“Why are there not more songbirds in my backyard? Why are these moments of tension so frequent in my backyard? Why do I hear intense alarms pretty regularly in my backyard?”
It took me a while to figure this out: 50 yards to the south and west of my patio where I sit, there is a pair of Cooper's hawks that have built a nest for the second year in a row in the same oak tree. Though I can't see them because of the tree line between us, I don't need to see them. I am “told” and “shown” by the jays and other songbirds that the male has just flown in to the tree line to my right. I hear him give his soft call. I hear the female answer. They fly over and meet together. He then gives her whatever he caught. She flies back to the nest.
Every time he comes and goes or anytime she moves, everybody responds. My whole backyard goes silent: the juncos fly under my car to hide, or they fly under the little bridge I have for when the puddle is there. Sometimes they actually just freeze in place absolutely still—especially if the grassy place is in shadow. These are some of the dramas that I get to see every day in my own yard.
The Cooper's hawks nesting so close by guarantees that the male hawk is coming several times throughout the day to bring the birds that he's caught to his mate so she can feed the young. I'm treated to the massive alarm that is created by his arrival. Often the jays sound off. If they are nearby, the crows will sound off, too. The Acorn Woodpeckers get excited. The raven might even grumble a little bit. The juncos will twitter while flying to hide immediately in a brush pile or under my under my car. The robins will make a very excited sound and fly to the top of a tall tree distancing themselves both across the ground and getting above the hawk’s elevation. The flickers will give a loud “Klee-er” call.
Then, everything becomes very quiet. And stays that way for 100 yards in all directions from that hawk for quite some time. This can last several minutes to even longer, depending on how long that hawk stays around. The female on the nest doesn’t seem to raise a constant alarm, perhaps because she is incubating her young.
There's an obvious difference in the alarm I create when I open my door that startles and irritates the juncos, versus when Cooper's hawk flies in 20 yards away on his way to meet his mate. This is just an example of how to use the five voices along with the maintenance behaviors from my experience of social isolation. Learn by observing and listening to your wild neighbors in your backyard how the pieces fit together. It’s relaxing, connecting, often exhilarating and fun!