These birds ‘retweet’ alarm calls | Daily News


These birds ‘retweet’ alarm calls

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.). National Geographic


Black-Capped Chickadee

Such research is important because it builds on ecologists’ growing understanding of communication networks between animals in the same environment. What’s 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.


Red-Breasted Nuthatch

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. 

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