Basic ScienceEarth & Geography

Can Birds Talk?

Can Birds Talk?

We all have our own languages, in the same way; birds also have their unique languages which only they understand. Human beings can speak because of vocal cords while birds don’t have vocal cords but they do have the syrinx. Birds make sounds using syrinx. Whenever any bird makes any sound, it is to communicate or to convey some messages. Birds’ sounds are of two types- calls and songs. There are mimic birds too, they are called talking birds like parrots. So they can talk or convey message suing their sounds.

Waking up in the morning with the chirping sound of the birds- it is a   quite normal and regular incident in our everyday life. But what do they say?  Can they talk or do they only make sound to send a signal to say, wake up, it is morning now. Or why does a cock crow cock- a- doodle- doo at dawn? Is there any significance of that sound? Does the cawing of a crow bring any special message for us? What do you think?

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You know that different birds can make different kinds of sound. But birds don’t have vocal cord. One of the major functions of a vocal cord is the production of sounds for speech generation. Human beings can talk to each other because of the presence of a vocal cord in our throat. Human beings also have tongue, teeth, lips which help to produce words to speak. Instead of vocal cord birds have a syrinx—that consists of throat muscles and membranes. Birds are thought to make sounds using this syrinx. Another thing is that birds don’t have lips, which is also a major organ that is essential for talking. Instead the birds have beaks, which do not support  speech. Also most birds do not have teeth.

Birds can make sounds. Different birds make different kinds of sounds. Sounds made by small birds may seem to be the sound of chirping, sounds made by large birds seem to the sounds like squawk.

But the sounds made by the birds are not simply meaningless noises. The sounds made by birds are obviously to communicate or to give signals or to convey any message.  When two crows are fighting over food, loudly cawing to each other, in such a situation the cawing may be an expression of either anger or displeasure. How would you explain the phenomenon of a male peacock screaming, spreading its tail in a beautiful fan? This is traditionally believed to be an expression of joy or even a signal of an oncoming downpour or shower. But, scientifically, this act of the peacock is a way to attract the attention of a peahen (female peacock).

Normally we can hear the coo-coo sound of an Asian Koel in the summer. Sometimes this sound can be agitating; at other times it may be soothing. Children, sometimes, echo the sound to attract the attention of the birds. But why do these birds make such a haunting sound?  The reason is that the male Koel bird makes the coo-coo sound to attract the female Koel. But popular belief is that their call announces the coming of the rain.

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Whenever any bird makes any sound, it is to communicate or to convey some messages. Sounds produced by birds can be classified into two categories, songs and calls. They are not similar. There is a difference between calls and songs of the birds.

Generally songs are used to defend territory and attract mates and mostly male birds used to sing. We are familiar with the songs of birds. Another thing is that songs have a clear and specific style. The variation or type of the songs of birds may depend on the time of a day, season or on their geographical location. The songs of birds may be different in the morning and that of in the evening. Some birds may like to sing in spring, some may like to sing in monsoon.

Calls of the birds are also known as call notes. Different species of   birds make different kinds of call notes to convey their messages. Generally call notes are like a single tone of definite pitch. Birds use different call notes to alert others about the presence of predators. Birds can tune up their call notes to respond to variety of threats. Another notable thing is that their calls of warning differ according to the location of the danger. If the location of danger is above or in the air then there will be a specific call of warning, like a short, quiet, high pitched sound. Again if location of danger is on land then the call of warning will be different from that. It may be loud.

Birds also make calls to keep contacts with each other. You will feel amazed to know that baby birds make ‘feed me’ calls too. Isn’t this fun?

Sounds made by different species of birds have different names. Here is a list of names of birds sounds: chicken – cluck; cock – crow; pigeon – coo; crow – caw; cuckoo(koel) – coo; duck – quake; eagle – scream; hen – cackle, cluck; owl – hoot; parrot – screech, squawk;  sparrow – chirp;

An interesting feature of birds is that some birds can imitate or mimic human speech. They are called talking birds. Sometimes we keep parrots or mynahs in our houses as pet birds. It has been noticed that they soon start to imitate the words which they hear in their surroundings. It is an amazing feeling to hear the bird  talking. Different species of birds make different kinds of call notes to convey   their messages.

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There is a conflict among the scientists on whether talking birds like parrots understand the language or not. Scientist like Pepperberg suggested that some species of parrots can use language meaningfully, while other group of scientists differ from this. But different birds have the varying capability of mimicking the language. Besides parrot, there are many other birds who can imitate languages, like hill mynha, Corvids, Starling, Mockingbirds, lyrebirds, Australian magpie etc.  Among them parakeets can mimic over 2000 words, while corvids can mimic only few words and phrases.

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Sounds made by birds, in other words, songs and calls of birds are a matter of deep study. There is a lot more to explore in the world of sounds made by birds. But whatever it is, it is an amazing world to explore. When a bird is chirping or squawking near your window it may not be simply chirping or squawking, now you know that surely it is a special message for other birds.

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Susmita Dasgupta

Susmita is a trained, veteran primary school teacher. She loves to teach and to make learning exciting for children. One of her great passions in life is to create in her students a curiosity about life and all its accompanying mysteries.

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