Taking Action for Wildlife banner

A Partnership of UNH Cooperative Extension and NH Fish and Game

Bird is the Word: Nature’s Security System

As the daily temperatures slowly creep up to the sunny side of the freezing point, the nip in the New Hampshire air is being replaced by the familiar calls of songbirds. A chorus of buntings, vireos, tanagers, warblers, and more will soon be singing everywhere from backyards in Manchester to Durham’s College Woods to the great White Mountain Wilderness. For many wildlife enthusiasts, this soundtrack is a welcome break from winter’s whipping winds and silent snows.

We made it! High five, everyone! (weather.com)

But perhaps we should be a little more wary of these sirens of spring.

Savvy birders have known for a while that the sounds coming from our feathered friends are not just idle chatter. In fact, those sweet songs you hear on your hike may actually be about you! Many of the most recognizable bird songs are actually alarm calls meant to inform anyone within earshot of a possible threat. For example, biologists at the University of Washington discovered that the iconic “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-deealarm call of black-capped chickadees can convey a lot of information about whatever it is the singer is trying to warn their kin about, including what and where a threat is.

Black-capped chickadees (the state bird of Massachusetts and Maine), ovenbirds (“TEAcher TEAcher TEAcher!”), and crows (“CAW!”) have some of the most recognizable alarm calls. (Photos by B. Corwin, C. Wood, K. McGowan from allaboutbirds.org)

This information is not exclusive to avian species. In the forest, it pays to be a nosy neighbor. Mammals often eavesdrop on what’s being said in the canopy. If you’ve ever come across a fresh set of tracks in the forest and wondered how that deer or fox knew to hightail it out of there long before you were within sight – when you were being SO quiet, and you were even downwind – the answer might be that chirping ovenbird perched above your head.

Any potential threat entering a bird’s habitat, be it a hungry bobcat or a mild-mannered human, is liable to set off the alarm. (Artwort by A. D’Ambrosia)

Now here’s the really amazing thing. Not only can other species hear and respond to alarm calls given by songbirds, but they also pass the signal along through the woods ahead of the intruder – and really fast. Erick Greene, a biologist at the University of Montana, used an array of microphones to follow how far and how fast an American robin’s alarm call would spread through a landscape. The signals could travel half a mile in about 15 seconds – that’s 120 miles per hour! You would be hard pressed to get a message to a friend that quickly even using your smartphone.

So can us lumbering humans hope to experience nature unfettered by this alarm system? Birds are tireless sentinels of the forest with great vantage points, so probably not. But there are ways to lessen your impact. Naturalist Jon Young, author of What the Robin Knows, advocates “replacing collision with connection” – be aware that you are not just passing through, but are part of the habitat.

Practice letting your awareness be greater than your disturbance. (Diagram by J. Young)

Just like any other member of a forest community, we can use bird vocalizations to our advantage and learn a lot about the surrounding habitat. All it takes to tap into this sophisticated communication network is a comfortable place to sit, a keen ear, and some patience. Happy listening!


By Rory Carroll, UNH Graduate Student
in Wildlife & Conservation Biology
Taking Action for Wildlife Spring 2015 Newsletter

Really want to hone your bird language skills? Look into the Bird Language Intensive offered by White Pine Programs each spring.

Wildlife and Conservation Biology
Wildlife and Conservation BiologyTaking Action for Wildlife Winter 2015 Newsletter