If you walk through the forest in Costa Rica, you’ll surely notice that the trees are filled with birdsong. What is the purpose of this? Do birds just sing and make sounds for enjoyment or are they communicating with each other? Do different species communicate with one another? What are they saying? In this article we will explore these questions. Read on to learn more.
Birds Don’t Just Sing To Hear Their Own Voices!
A naturalist by the name of Alexander Skutch was considered the foremost authority regarding Neotropical birds. He wrote many books about birds. In one, “The Minds of Birds” he declared that birds use their vocalizations to express their emotions.
For example, mockingbirds screech a battle cry to frighten predators (including other birds) away from their nests. Swans and geese honk when they are angry. If you know anything about swans and geese, you know that their anger is easy to interpret whether you are a swan, goose, or any other bird or beast (including surprising numbers of beleaguered golfers!)
Bird songs and sounds have very definite purposes. For example, all species of birds have some sort of alarm sound for use when a predator or other threat approaches. American Chickadees have several different alarm cries that they use to specifically identify different kinds of predators and/or levels of threat.
It only stands to reason that all birds would learn to recognize the alarm cries of others as a matter of survival.
Birds communicate for purposes of procreation. Many birds sing to attract a mate. While it might not be essential for birds of one species to recognize the mating calls of another, it makes sense to believe that they do. Staying out of one another’s territory during mating season is a smart survival skill.
Researchers have found that many different types of birds can alter the meaning of their calls through ascending or descending notes. This difference can alter the meaning of a very similar musical phrase to mean “go away” in one instance or “come here” in another.
Crows Like To Gossip
Researcher Theodore Xenophon Barber, author of the book “The Human Nature of Birds” told the tale of a study in which microphones were hidden in areas where crows liked to congregate. The secret recordings revealed that in addition to the usual raucous shouts and caws associated with these birds, they also spend a lot of time whispering amongst themselves. The researcher conducting the study speculated that they seemed to be discussing the events of the day.
While this kind of communication within a flock of crows is not proof of birds’ ability to communicate across species, it is just one more bit of evidence proving the complexity and intelligence of crows. Keep in mind that these birds have been proven to be able to make and use tools. Furthermore, they are able to mimic human speech and a wide variety of sounds, no doubt including the calls of other birds. Surely, they can also understand those calls and may even use them in communication.
It’s Not All Song
In addition to vocalizing, birds communicate with those around them in a number of interesting and creative ways. For example, Greater Spotted Woodpeckers drum to convey messages. They take care to choose the most resonant hollow logs or branches available to drum out precise numbers of blows at varying levels of intensity.
While their complex drumming may all sound the same to the unaided human ear, researchers have recorded and deciphered these messages and say that there are definite patterns that surely must convey meaning to other woodpeckers and perhaps to the forest population in general.
Many types of Costa Rica Focus birds also engage in elaborate dances to attract mates and/or threaten off romantic competition. Among them are the black-footed albatross, the blue-footed booby, the superb bird of paradise and the peacock.
Just as with mating cries, birds of other species would probably do well to take note and understand the meaning of these dances. They can act both to impress potential mates and as a warning to others to keep out of the way.
Humans once though that all other animals just made meaningless sounds and noises prompted by instinct. Now we know that this is far from the truth. The more researchers delve into bird language, the more complex it reveals itself to be. Now naturalists have come to realize that birds do, indeed rejoice at sunrise, sing in concert just for fun, call out greetings to one another and apparently have regular conversations.
Naturalist David Attenborough says that he believes birds gladly greet the dawn with song both to express joy and because they realize that the sound will carry farther in the quiet, early morning hours.
An Austrian naturalist named Konrad Lorenz devoted many hours to observation of bird communication. He came to the conclusion that birds of all species live in very human-like social groupings. For example, he recounts that Jackdaw flocks tend to have a “boss male”.
In his book, King Solomon’s Ring, Lorenz recounts an instance in which a boss male took a low status female as his mate. Although the female had literally been at the bottom of the pecking order before, when she became the mate of the boss, her status changed. The other birds began to treat her with respect and she became a bit of a bully herself.
Lorenz asserts that this sort of complex social behavior is highly indicative of complex communication skills. This bears out the idea that birds of same species and different species no doubt communicate with one another.
Birdsong may just sound pretty to us, but the fact is birds’ physical makeup allows them to create rich, varied, complex sounds that we are simply not able to perceive. A bird’s song can contain as many as two-thousand repeated elements. Their communications are elaborate and, no doubt, filled with meaning. While we may not be able to understand what they are saying, it is reasonable to believe that the many bird species who live together in relative harmony do understand one another.