Bird Watcher's General Store

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Silent Birds

Dear Bird Folks,

Have you ever tried to make a large group of people be silent in a split second? It can’t be done. However, birds can do it. Sometimes my backyard birds are making a racket and then a split second later they are instantly all quiet. How are they able to do this?

– Elvira, Montreal, Canada.


It’s easy Elvira,

It’s easy to make a large group people be of quiet. All you have to do is announce that you are looking for volunteers. The minute you ask for volunteers the entire group will drop their heads, stare at their shoes and clam up faster than a …. clam. Or, in the case of you people in Montreal, they’ll clam up faster than le clam.

Before I get to your question, Elvira, I have one for you. Didn’t I answer a question from you a few years back? You and the people in your office were wondering about penguins’ knees. You’re lucky. I usually don’t answer two questions from the same person, but since you are from Canada I’ll make the exception. Because when you think about it, with the exchange rate, it’s really only like answering a question and a half.

Interesting what you said about the birds “making a racket.” What sounds like a racket to us is serious communication to them. In addition to their mating and territory songs, birds also use calls to keep their flock together, to inform others of a food source and to alert the group of danger. The birds that you heard being silent* are more than likely responding to a single bird’s danger call.

* I’m not really sure how you actually hear something “being silent,” but you know what I mean. Don’t you?

Over the years researchers have figured out that birds not only give warning calls, but contained in those calls is information as to what kind of predator is threatening and to how seriously the evil doer should be taken. For example, if a ground predator is spotted, such as a cat, snake, cat, fox, cat or cat, the alarm call will tell the birds to take flight. The one advantage birds have over terrestrial creatures is that they can fly. When they get the word that a predator is on the prowl, they simply have to fly away to safety. However, the flight escape wouldn’t work nearly as well if the attack came from above. Hawks, falcons and even owls have the advantage when their prey becomes airborne. So, rather than giving the signal to fly, some birds give a different warning call. Instead of taking flight the birds will then either dive for cover or simply freeze in their tracks, hoping their natural camouflage protects them.

I think it’s funny that birds have figured out that it’s important to give specific danger information and yet us humans, the alleged superior life form, aren’t smart enough to do so. How many times have you heard someone yell the ambiguous “heads up”? How are we supposed to respond to that? Do we run away? Drop to our knees? Cover sensitive body parts? It would be more beneficial if the same person yelled something that told us how to react like “run,” or “duck” or “quick, put on your cup.”

Some birds have even taken the alarm notes a step further. Chickadees, the world’s best bird, will even communicate exactly how threatening the danger is and to what degree the birds need to respond. By adding more “dee,dee, dees” and more intensity to their calls birds are able to sense the urgency. One of the most ferocious birds anywhere is the Great Horned Owl. There are few creatures that this owl won’t make a meal out of. Yet a chickadee knows it is much too fast and agile for the jumbo owl, so its warning call is fairly relaxed when it spots a great-horned. However, if the same chickadee were to see a smaller owl or small hawk, predators that are quick enough to catch it, it would blow the whistle big time. In chickadee talk a few “dee, dee, dees,” means there’s trouble, but it’s not real serious. Many “dee, dee, dees,” indicate that something very bad is around. And if the chickadee repeats “dee, dee, dee” over and over, all day long, it simply means the poor bird has a song stuck in its’ head. Don’t you hate that? I spent all last weekend humming the theme song to the Flintstones. It drove me nuts. That’s what I get for eating Fruity Pebbles for breakfast every morning.

The birds that you heard become instantly quiet, Elvira, were probably responding to a warning call. My guess is that the danger was a small hawk. Being quiet and motionless is the typical songbird response to an avian predator. Sitting still and silent should keep the little birds safe. They’ll be safe unless one of them starts humming the theme song to the Flintstones. Then things could get ugly.