In this article:
- Birds songs and calls don’t seem quite as nuanced as human language, but they do communicate certain kinds of important information to other birds.
- Research shows that distress calls and warning signals are the most universally recognized calls that birds can understand, no matter which species is making it.
- But this seems to only be the case for species that live near each other, so it’s not an innate understanding but learned through observation.
- It’s not always just warning signals, either. In some cases, birds can understand other kinds of calls from other species (and even imitate them).
Not long ago, I was engaging in one of my favorite activities: sitting outside and doing nothing in particular. The sun was gently warming my skin, the trees were rustling in the slight breeze, and the birds were singing to each other.
I noticed one birdsong that I recognized to be that of a black guan, a low-pitched rolling noise that sounds a bit like Cardi B’s catchphrase. A moment later, I recognized the call of a blue-and-gold tanager, which is more of a high-pitched squeaking sound.
I began to consider how different certain birdsongs are between different bird species. Then, the question dawned on me: can birds understand other bird species? Can a cockatoo understand the call of a parakeet? Can a flamingo understand when a finch is making a mating call? And, if so, would it be as if birds had accents?
Would a wood thrush speaking to a crow be the equivalent of someone speaking to me in a heavy Russian accent? Would it be like an Italian trying to understand a Spanish TV show and only picking up on certain words? Would it be more like me trying to understand Swahili, a language that I have absolutely no comprehension of?
Luckily, some scientists out there were curious about this very same topic because there have been some studies conducted on whether different bird species can communicate with one another.
What Are Birds Saying?
The sounds that birds are capable of vocalizing include singing, calls, squeaks, squawks, gurgles, warbles, trills, rattles, gulps, pops, whines, clicks, croaks, drums, whistles, howls, tremolos, thumps, and honks, among others. These sounds are used to communicate a variety of signals in combination with other non-verbal forms of communication such as body language.
As far as we can tell, bird communication is not nearly as advanced or nuanced as human communication, so comparing birdsongs to human language is not exactly apt. However, birds can relay several different messages through their vocalizations.
They may be claiming their territory, seeking a mate, begging for food, calling out to their mate or to their chicks, locating members of their flock, or warning of the presence of a predator. In fact, birds sometimes even sing duets with their mates purely for enjoyment.
So, while comparing bird calls to languages or even accents may not be entirely accurate, the question remains: can birds understand other bird species? Let’s take a look at some examples and find out.
In terms of which kinds of signals are the most universally recognized in the bird world, warning signals are definitely near the top. Apparently, across different bird species, most types of birds are able to recognize when any other kind of bird is sending out a distress signal about a nearby predator.
You can think of it sort of like eavesdropping. One species of bird will send out distress signals to other members of the same species and then other birds outside of that species will pick up on it. In this way, birds of different species definitely understand each other somewhat.
As an example, the black-capped chickadee and the red-breasted nuthatch are two songbirds that have quite a lot in common. Both species have similar sizes and they’re both indigenous to North America. Being that they’re both fairly small, they’re susceptible to predation from raptors.
When the black-capped chickadees recognize that a predator is perched nearby, they’ll emit a “chick-a-dee-dee” call. They’ll also add more “dees” to the end of the call to signify how close the predator is. Studies have shown that the red-breasted nuthatch will respond to the distress call of the chickadees and even understand the level of danger being relayed.
As a side note, it has also been proven that other non-bird species will occasionally respond to the warning signals given off by birds. In fact, the distress call of the tufted titmouse is believed to be understood by squirrels and chipmunks. To take it one step further, the squirrels and the chipmunks will actually imitate the call with their own voices.
Innate or Learned?
Alright, so birds of different species are able to understand each other somewhat. However, to get even deeper into things, we need to ask the question of whether birds are born with the ability to understand other species of birds or if they learn this ability. Research would suggest that these abilities are largely learned.
In a study conducted by Robert D. Magrath, a professor of ornithology at the Australian National University. Near the university, one can commonly observe two species of birds: superb fairywrens and noisy miners.
Similar to the case of the black-capped chickadee and the red-breasted nuthatch, the superb fairywren will respond to distress calls given off by the fairy miner, but only in certain circumstances.
The study showed that superb fairywrens that cohabitate with noisy miners will respond to the noisy miners’ distress calls, whereas superb fairywrens that lived separately from the noisy miners did not. This implies that this cross-understanding is learned rather than innate.
More Than Just Alarms
While distress sounds are the signals that birds most often pick up from other species, there has been evidence that some birds can understand other types of information transmitted by other species as well.
Most of the time, birds will only understand the information if it is beneficial to their own survival. For example, some species will recognize “gathering” calls and form mixed-species flocks to find food. The more birds in a flock, the less likely each bird is to be killed by a predator. This kind of eavesdropping is mutually beneficial.
Another example is when birds can understand the territorial call of another bird species and then respond by defending their territory. This territorial cry is similar to a warcry, and the eavesdropping species responds by getting into the defensive position.
One particularly interesting and widely studied example involves the cuckoo. These birds are known as “brood parasites,” or a kind of organism that relies on others to raise their young. The strategy involves the females of the species laying their eggs in the nests of other species of birds.
The babies of the species will then imitate the cooing call of the host’s own babies. Sometimes, the host species will be tricked into raising the cuckoo baby without ever realizing that it’s not their own child. This would imply that the cuckoo babies have an innate ability to imitate the cooing calls of other species.
In summary, birds can understand the calls of members of other species to some degree. Most of the information transmitted between species is warnings of danger. However, that is certainly not an indication that the level of communication between birds of different species is very complex.
Think about this: if you run into someone on the street speaking Ukrainian (and you don’t speak Ukrainian) screaming bloody murder, you’ll probably be pretty concerned yourself, even if you don’t know the specific words they’re screaming. With that being said, certain species of birds have achieved interspecies communication in ways that are pretty amazing.