Can different bird species understand each other?

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Birds communicate in various ways, but i’ll be focusing only on audible communication in this post.

Robert D. Magrath, a behavioral ecologist at the Australian National University, co-authored multiple studies about interspecies communication in birds.

Margath states, “Just about every bird species we have studied locally respond to other species’ alarm calls, and we suspect eavesdropping on other species’ calls is widespread around the globe. Perhaps this is not surprising given that almost all species are vulnerable to predators and so should use any available cues that predators are around.”

Wood thrush bird singing
Wood thrush bird singing (H/T allaboutbirds.org)

An interesting example of this phenomenon can be found in the relationship between the red-breasted nuthatch and the black-capped chickadee. Both of these birds reside in North America, are similar sizes, and are always on the lookout for winged predators. When a chickadees see a winged predator approaching, it makes a vocal alarm call. The severity of the threat determines the type of call that is vocalized. High-pitched calls are used to tip off other birds about a raptor that’s flying far overhead. Extra chirps are added if a predator looks especially dangerous. The nuthatches not only understand the warnings, they understand the exact degree of danger that’s being vocalized by the chickadees.

These alarm calls even trigger a response from non-avian animals. The tufted titmouse is a songbird whose anti-raptor warning cries send chipmunks and squirrels running for cover. Amazingly, some of these mammals are even known to communicate these distress signals to other animals by imitating it with their own voices. For example, cardinals, sparrows, and jays can mimic the titmouse’s signature alarm call.

Alarm calls aren’t the only vocalizations that can transcend different species. It’s common for birds to react to other bird species sounds if there’s a benefit to recognizing it. Some species defend territories against other species and respond to their territorial vocalizations. Others can recognize contact calls which allow different species of birds to work together to find food. Does this mean they understand everything else and just filter out what is relevant? No one knows for sure.

Another interesting example is the cuckoo bird. Some cuckoos are brood parasites and lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. The baby cuckoos will imitate the begging cries of the host bird which tricks the host bird into raising them. Amazing!

INTERESTING FACTS
  1. Someone who suffers from “anatidaephobia” believes that a duck or goose is always watching them.
  2. Some birds, such as starlings, sing notes too high for humans to hear.
  3. The marsh warbler can imitate the sounds of more than 80 different birds.
INTERESTING VIDEO

INTERESTING REFERENCES
  1. HowStuffWorks.com – Can Different Bird Species ‘Talk’ with Each Other?
  2. WildernessCollege.com – Bird Communication: An Introduction
  3. FactRetriever.com – 100 Colorful Facts about Birds

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