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Bird Calls

Not all birds sing and not all the sounds birds make are called songs. Singing is limited to the order Passeriformes, or perching birds. This means that nearly half of the birds in the world do not sing. They are not, however, silent, far from it, nearly all birds use sounds to communicate. Most birds use vocalisations which are short and unmusical and cannot be termed as song. These sounds have considerable functionality and are generally labelled call-notes or calls to distinguish them from true songs.

Call notes can be divided into at least 10 different categories: 

1) General alarm calls 
2) Specialised alarm calls 
3) Distress calls 
4) Aggressive calls 
5) Territorial defence calls 
6) Flight calls 
7) Nest calls 
8) Flock calls 
9) Feeding calls 
10) Pleasure calls 
Not all birds use these calls and many birds have more than one call for one category. To confuse matters even more, some birds seem to use very similar calls in different circumstances to mean different things. Nevertheless, most birds seem to have between 5 and 15 distinct calls that ornithologists can recognise. Generally speaking, the passerines have a greater repertoire of calls than non-passerines.

Number of Calls as Adults:

Barbary Dove 5 Wren 12
Fowl (chickens) 6 Blackbird 11
Herring Gull 7 Chaffinch 13
Doves (other) 9 Song Sparrow 14

Pleasure calls are unique to juvenile fowls while wrens and blackbirds have a special roosting call which Chaffinches and Sparrows do not have. It is not uncommon for birds to have at least 3 or more alarm calls one of which will only be used to signify an aerial predator, i.e. a Sparrowhawk. Alarm calls give information to other birds nearby. This applies not only to members of the same species but also to other species of birds. There is considerable similarity in the alarm calls of a wide variety of birds which makes it easier for birds of different species to recognise, and respond to each others alarm calls. Distress calls are restricted to juvenile birds and generally serve to bring an adult to the rescue of a young bird in danger. Begging calls are also used only by young birds. Basically, they are a young bird's way of getting an adult bird to feed it. On the other hand, courtship, copulation, mate feeding and territorial calls are all used only by adult birds. Flight calls are used immediately before and during flight and serve to help keep the flock co-ordinated. Some birds have a variety of flight calls including one for commencing flight and one for ending flight or staying still as well as one or more used during flight.

All these calls act as a simple language allowing birds to communicate with each other and with the rest of the world. In many environments the alarm calls of birds warn other animals of approaching danger. Though the calls a bird can make are controlled by its physiology and genetics, the calls it responds to are largely a matter of learning. Thus Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres, chicks reared by a Redshank (Tringa totanus) respond to Redshank calls and not Turnstone calls.

Sound is often more important than sight in parent-offspring recognition. A deaf female turkey is unable to recognise her own chicks and chickens cannot recognise silenced chicks (with a belljar over them). Experiments have also shown that, in colony nesting birds at least young birds can recognise their own parents by their calls alone, though they all sound the same to us. 

Birds start using calls early in their lives, in some species even before they are hatched. Quail chicks use calls to communicate with each other and their mother from inside their eggs. They are able this way to synchronise their hatching so that they all emerge from the eggs within the space of a couple of hours. Pelican chicks tell their mum if they are too hot or cold from inside the eggs. Chicks also listen to their parents while inside the eggs. This way they come to recognise their parents even before emerging form the eggs. Some birds such as Mallards have special maternal calls that they give while incubating the eggs so that after hatching the mother only has to give this call to have the chicks rush to her for protection.

Not all young birds learn to recognise their parents or vice versa immediately. In Herring Gulls, about 5 days pass before this recognition takes place, while Kittiwakes take up to 5 weeks for recognition to register.

Birds also distinguish their mates by call. Gannets are colony nesting birds and a nesting site can have thousands of birds coming and going in a noisy melee that would befuddle a human listener, yet gannets can distinguish the calls of their particular mate from all those around them on the basis of only 1/10 second of the total call.

Information on this page was contributed by EarthLife.

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Last updated: 24 November 2002