do birds warn you of danger

Red-breasted nuthatches dont trust everything they hear, suggesting evolution favors cautious behavior, a new study says.

If you live in North America, you might have enjoyed the bright songs of black-capped chickadees or red-breasted nuthatches on your street. But you might not have known that those songs have lyrics.

“You might call them words,” says Erick Greene, an ecologist at the University of Montana, “but linguists might get upset about that.”

In fact, the chickadee has a vocabulary of around 50 distinct sounds that communicate a few essential phrases, like “danger!” “feed me!” or “I’m single!”

Greene and his colleagues have previously found that nuthatches eavesdrop on these chickadee warning signals and “retweet” them to their neighbors—like real-life Twitter, Greene jokes.

But their new research shows that like any good reporter, the nuthatch checks out its facts—the birds will repeat the general chickadee alarm call, but they don’t vocalize more specific information about the predator until they can verify it, according to the study, published January 27 in the journal Nature Communications. (Listen to what could be the loudest bird on Earth.)

Such research is important because it builds on ecologists’ growing understanding of communication networks between animals in the same environment. Whats more, listening in on birds’ specific alarm calls can give scientists a rough estimate of how many predators are living in a particular area—an effective, non-invasive way of measuring the health of the ecosystem.

Though each bird species has its own “language,” certain calls cut across cultural and geographic borders. For example, a seet is the universal danger call made by birds and small mammals.

Chickadees, it turns out, chirp about predators a lot. In fact, their name comes from the warning call they make when they see a suspicious character lurking around the neighborhood: Chickadee-dee-dee-dee-dee. The more “dees,” the more dangerous the predator.

The chickadee call is a little different from a seet. Instead of “Run for your life!” it’s more like, “Sing for your life!” in the sense the vocalization riles up other birds to jump out and harass a potential predator, like an owl or a hawk, in a behavior called mobbing. (Read why birds matter, and are worth protecting.)

For this experiment, Greene and his colleagues placed speakers in 60 locations near Missoula, Montana, and in three locations near Mazama, Washington, all of them near known populations of wild nuthatches. The team then played recorded sounds of the very dangerous pygmy owl, the less dangerous great horned owl, and a third control bird that does not pose any threat to the nuthatch.

In the second stage of the experiment, scientists played warning calls of chickadees that had seen the same predators. Then they recorded the sounds that the nuthatches made to see if the birds responded to hearing about a predator secondhand in the same way that they would if they heard the predator directly.

Why check it out?

Greene and associates discovered that when the nuthatches directly heard the predator calls, they would communicate the extent of the threat to their own kind by sending out a mobbing call, which is a series of quick, single-syllable chirps. Larger predators made shorter, higher-pitched calls, like the pygmy owl.

Nuthatches would repeat the alarm calls of the chickadees with a general warning call, regardless of the degree of threat.

It’s unclear why the nuthatches don’t echo the chickadees’ high level of alarm, but the researchers surmise that since the chickadees’ reports may not be accurate, repeating the call with less assurance is a wise survival tactic.

“We’re on high alert and we got it from the chickadees that there’s something out there, but we haven’t verified it,” Greene remarks, sounding like the nuthatches.

Eastern Kentucky University ornithologist Gary Ritchison concurs that it’s unclear why the nuthatches don’t trust the chickadees enough to repeat their degree of alarm. (Read why small birds have sweeter songs. ).

Ritchison, who was not involved in the study, speculates that although nuthatches may be able to locate a potential predator, they are only able to determine where the chickadee is. ”.

A secondary source of information is often less trustworthy than firsthand knowledge for a variety of reasons, so the study suggests that natural selection may have favored nuthatches who are wary of spreading rumors, even if they are extremely frightening.

If only humans were so discerning.

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Because their lives are so dangerous, birds must constantly be on the lookout for threats in order to survive. Fortunately, they have a few strategies to prevent becoming a hawk or cat’s next meal. One is, of course, to take off; this is a wise decision, but it’s not always feasible. Another is to gather a group of birds and create such a commotion that the predator is forced to leave the area. However, when a threat is too close and dangerous, birds freeze in hiding and make high-pitched, soft sounds to alert other birds to the danger.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and is a nature writer for national, regional, and local publications. His email address is valwrites@comcast. net.

It surprised some bird scientists to discover that certain bird species’ danger calls indicate not only the presence of a predator but also its kind and degree of danger.

Watch out, indeed: Jon Young describes seeing Coopers hawks, raptors that consume songbirds, constructing a nest in his intriguing book “What the Robin Knows.” For six weeks, starting from the time the eggs were laid until the three hawklings fledged, he kept a close eye on the nest. Young counted the small birds that the parents brought in for their nestlings; for every young hawk, he counted 66 songbirds, or nearly 200 birds.

Robins and chickadees are the birds most likely to yell out high-danger alerts in our backyards, and many wild animals can identify these calls. When robins make their barely audible “seet-seet” sound, which alerts humans to the presence of a nearby bird-eating hawk, catbirds, sparrows, finches, and nuthatches scramble for cover. Even woodchucks, chipmunks, and red squirrels pay attention to these warnings and sprint for cover on their short legs.


What birds send warnings?

But in cases where the threat is too close and too dangerous, birds freeze in hiding while making soft, high-pitched sounds that serve as a warning to other birds. In our own backyards, the birds likeliest to call out high-danger warnings are robins and chickadees, and many wild creatures recognize such calls.

Can birds warn humans of danger?

They have a certain ‘tone’ to them. They’ll give these calls if they spot a snake, alligator, owl, someone with a gun, other predator or danger, etc. It’s safe to say that plenty of people who are aware of their calls have ‘heard’ about the danger long before they saw it themselves.

What do birds do when they sense danger?

However, birds, like many animals, are sensitive to body language, vocal cues, and other behavioral signals that could indicate potential threats. They may react defensively or avoid people who display threatening behavior, such as sudden movements or loud noises.

What birds signal danger?

Signs of danger Sentinel species, like the Paridae family, are pivotal in mixed-species groups for their distinct alarm calls. These calls, like the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” of chickadees, are recognized by various bird species, emphasizing their role as universal signals of danger.