How bird language can expand your awareness of nature

sound mapping
Photo by Dendroica cerulea

Here in Washington state, we are fortunate that we can travel very short distances to be in very wild places. With such abundant beauty around us to engage our eyes – and the thoughts of our busy lives percolating in our brain – our bubble of awareness becomes a lot smaller. We are only able to perceive the environment immediately in front of us, and maybe slightly behind us, but what are we missing out on? Are you aware of the weasel moving in the thicket 20ft to your left? Are you aware that you spooked a cougar 50ft up the trail? Did you know about the jogger who will be running by you in 2 minutes? This level of awareness is not only possible, but indeed, it was a common skill of our ancestors. This could be achieved simply by paying attention to what the birds were saying and doing – it’s called sound mapping, and it can totally change your level of awareness in the wilderness.

sound mapping

To the untrained ear, it may appear that birds are out there making random sounds. However, all of their vocalizations convey important information to those willing to listen. This is most apparent for birds in the order Passeriformes (Song or perching birds). Imagine that every day – and often several times a day – creatures from the ground, and the air, are trying to eat you and your family while you’re out trying to find food or at home. At this point communication becomes very important. Birds in this order warn each other of predators and other dangers in hopes that they will then return the favor, thus keeping everyone relatively safe.

sound mapping
By aware of “Popcorn” movement in order to spot predators

This may sound complicated, but if you just think about how you might react in that situation, it becomes more easily understood. When you hear a bird call, think – what kind of feeling are you getting?


The 5 Voices of the Birds

Song– You have probably heard birds singing on a spring morning. This is an expression of joy and gratitude and usually signals that everything is OK (baseline).

Companion Call– When a mated pair of birds are feeding on the ground, they call back and forth watching each other’s back. Another sign of baseline.

Territorial Aggression– When a bird wanders into another territory, other birds may defend their resources by driving the intruder away. This can sound like an alarm, but you may notice none of the other birds are reacting. Another sign of baseline.

Juvenile Begging– In the spring when the babies are hungry, they can call incessantly waiting for dinner. (Your kids probably do this as well). This is a good way to locate nests and another sign of baseline.

Alarm!– This is usually a loud, sharp call, repeated over and over by one or more species of birds. This can look different depending on what’s causing the alarm, but will let you know that something is happening close by (go find out what’s going on).


sound mapping
Minimize your threat in order to spot the most wildlife


The 5 local birds here in WA that will become your allies in learning Bird Language:

  1. American Robin
  2. Winter (pacific) Wren
  3. Spotted Towhee
  4. Dark Eyed Junco
  5. Song Sparrow

The best way to practice is first to listen – when you hear a call, STOP! Ask your self, what feeling am I getting? What call am I experiencing? What is going on over there? Then go investigate, and see if you were correct. Whether you’re right or wrong, you will learn something that will inform future guesses, and eventually you’ll start to be right! Have fun out there!


sound mapping
Take advantage of your position as a Safety Barrier for better bird watching, and use it in order to recognize the potential for other predators in the area

For more wilderness skills training from Kyle, check out A Berry Abundant Landscape: Foraging for Wild Blackberries, How to Make a Shelter in the Backcountry, and Five Wild Plants Every Backpacker Should Know.

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