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Home Adaptations Communication Intentions

When birds live as members of a family or a flock, they need to let each other know what they're doing and what they intend to do next. Humans sometimes give each other "tweets" on cell phones. Birds "tweet" each other, too, in several ways. They use vocalizations and physical movements to get their messages across.

For example, sometimes birds chatter the way humans chat, vocalizing about where they are, what they're doing, expressing contentment, and so on. Other times, their songs and calls are more purposeful.

Mallard (female and male)

Mallard (female and male)
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

Calls can be used to coordinate behavior, telling a mate what to do, for example. Or calls can tell family members how to behave, or cue the flock to take some action such foraging or fleeing an enemy. During night flights, birds call to each other to help avoid collisions.

A bird might use a call to signal that it's time to leave, especially when there's danger. If the birds get separated, they'll call back and forth until they find each other.

Along with their songs and calls, birds use movements and postures to let other birds know what they plan to do next. A stretch of the wings often means that a bird intends to fly away. Other birds will respond with a similar stretch if they plan to follow.

Bird body language can convey things about what they're feeling or planning. You can learn to read behaviors, in pet birds as well as in wild birds. Here are some potential messages:

  • Beak clicking: "I feel threatened. I want to protect something."
  • Beak grinding: "I'm secure and content."
  • Beak wiping: "I'm upset." (Or, "My beak is dirty.")
  • Crouching: "I'm feeling aggressive. Back off."
  • Tail bobbing: "I don't feel well." (Or, "I'm singing and I'm really into it.")
  • Flashing or dilated pupils: "Watch out – I'm feeling aggressive." (Or, "I'm very excited!")
  • Head shaking from side to side: "Whoo-hoo! I'm really excited!"
  • Tail fanning: "I'm feeling aggressive. Don't push me." (Or, "I'm unhappy.")
  • Tongue clicking: "I feel friendly." (Or, "Let's do something together.")
  • Wings and body quivering: "I'm scared."
  • Wing drumming: "I'm bored." (Or, "I feel a need to protect my territory.")
  • Wing drooping: "I've just bathed and I'm drying off." (Or, "I'm too young to know how to hold my wings properly." Or, "I'm overheated and I need to cool off.")


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