The Naturalist: How to Speak Bird

Everyone loves bird songs, but have you ever taken a moment to think about what they’re saying? Birds use their calls for many reasons, including keeping track of companions, alerting each other about nearby danger, and impressing the ladies. An individual bird can have many different calls. Winter is actually a great time of year to learn some.

Birds are relatively quiet in winter, and many species have migrated away. This works to our advantage in learning birdcalls — you won’t be distracted by the chorus of many birds all trying to sing and call over each other (which is what happens in spring). When learning birdcalls, it’s best to pick one or two species to focus on at first and learn their sounds.

One recognizable winter bird in Connecticut is the black-capped chickadee. These are very small birds with a grey back and wing, tan/white underside (breast), and black and white head. Chickadees have many different calls, but they are named after their alarm call, which sounds like “chick-a-dee-dee”. When you hear this call in the forest, it means that the chickadee is nervous about something nearby, which could be you. The number of “dees” you hear at the end represents the level of threat. So for humans, who aren’t considered much of a threat, you could hear, “chick-a-dee-dee,” but if there’s a fox nearby, you might hear “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee”. Paying attention to the number of dees at the end of the call will give you a clue about who might be lurking around.

Another bird that stands out in winter is the northern cardinal. Male northern cardinals are a brilliant red color that makes them pop in a winter landscape. Cardinals have a beautiful song they use to mark their territory and attract mates, but they don’t sing those songs in the winter. Instead, they do what are called companion calls. Companion calls are simple little chirps that a mated pair makes back and forth to keep track of one another. You’ll hear a soft chirp from one bird and then a matching call back from another bird. The calls have a set timing between them. If that rhythm is disrupted or one cardinal stops chirping in response, the other will switch to an alarm call, which is the same sound but louder and faster. This will continue until they find their companion again and all is well. Then they switch back to their companion calls again. Cardinals stay with the same mate for life so it is very important that they keep track of each other.

Winter may not seem like the best time of year to start learning bird calls, but its definitely the least overwhelming time of year to try. Pick two or three different species, such as the black-capped chickadee and the northern cardinal and really focus on learning some of their calls. See if you can identify what they are communicating to each other. Once you become familiar with those, you can add new species, like woodpeckers, nuthatches, and wrens, which are all abundant in winter.

For more information about interpreting bird calls and behavior, look for “What a Robin Knows” by Author Jon Young.

Sam Nunes is an environmental educator at the Woodcock Nature Center in Wilton.