Last week I noticed the smaller songbirds in a thicket along the small creek next to my house were making some odd and excited scolding noises. It was quite a commotion – with brown thrashers, Northern mockingbirds, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and wrens all joining in. I was thinking maybe a snake had been discovered basking on a limb, but as I approached, a red-shouldered hawk flew out and away.
Birders don’t claim to speak the birds’ language; at least I don’t. But birders do often rely on bird sounds to let them know of other birds or threats that may be in the area. An excited and noisy flock of American crows often will let me know a red-tailed hawk has riled them up. If a red-shouldered hawk adds its screams to the commotion, then it may be a great-horned owl they have found. The tone is a clue, too. Crows are more laid-back in their scolding of a hawk. A great-horned owl, though, really sets them off in volume and urgency.
Smaller birds let me know what’s going on, too. A single chickadee or wren scolding doesn’t arouse my attention much. I’ve seen them scold an empty hole in a tree as if just in case something is in there. But if that chickadee is joined by a family group of nuthatches and titmice, things might get interesting. Throw in a red-eyed vireo with its mewing alarm call and an American robin with loud, abrupt alarm notes, and then I hurry to investigate. It might be a cat, snake or some other predator.
Migrants passing through our area like to flock with chickadees and titmice. A sharp, hurried whistle from a chickadee lets the other birds in a flock know that a Cooper’s hawk is fast approaching. When birds hear it, they dive for cover. Birders look for a glimpse of the hawk. White-throated sparrows also give a loud series of piping notes to alert the others in their flock of impending danger.
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If you notice an abrupt change in the tone of your local birds’ calls, check it out. They may be alerting you to something interesting going on right outside your window or door.