January 2020

Naming That Song III

Part 3: Bird Language

Once a bird song has been identified and learned, a reasonable question to ask is, "What is that bird saying?" This turns out to be a very complex question, because the answer, according to Jon Young, the author of What The Robin Knows[1], depends not only on the species that is making the vocalization, but when, where, why, and to whom it is speaking. And that in turn is because the sounds birds make are almost entirely communicative. According to Young and other practitioners and teachers of the craft, "bird language" can be learned.

Conceivably, a dedicated student could go through recordings from the Macaulay Library[2] (described in our February 2019 article), species by species, looking at field notes by the recordists, using Macaulay's extensive search filters and determine which sounds were being being used in which circumstances. And then guess their meanings.

Much easier to visit the archive compiled from recordings by Lang Elliot[3] (more about his work in an upcoming Bird Videos II article, later this year), which is made available on the Bird Language[4] website. Organized both by species and by vocalization type, it's almost the only resource needed to begin learning and to practice listening-in on the conversations which are all around us. For more directed practice, Jon Young offers Bird Language Leader[5] workshops.

"Nature Mentor" Brian Mertens from Canada maintains an online Crow Language Course[6] by subscription, among other learning opportunities. Like Jon, he is an experienced wildlife tracker, for whom avian communications provide invaluable information about what's going on in a given location, as the title of Jon's book indicates. Brian has also uploaded a YouTube channel[7], which includes a number of episodes directed at decoding bird talk. His free downloadable introductory booklet, "What's That Crow Saying?"[8] (a Favorite) let this columnist for the first time hear the incomprehensible cacophony of our local flock as a vast, intense discussion.

One excellent example of Brian's teaching style is his video with accompanying transcript of "Why is That Raven Screaming?"[9] on his website. The list of links at the bottom of that page to some of his other free tutorials is an absolute treasure trove of clues to help answer the question with which this month's column began.

The Bird Wide Web™ will be publishing a new article on the beginning of each month.

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