Photos & Article by Josh Lane
In a recent Wall Street Journal review of Jon Young’s book, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, reviewer Jonathan Rosen touched on an interesting question: How can one really learn to distinguish between the approach of a cat or a dog simply through reading the language of the birds? Is this kind of skill possible to achieve? This article explores this question from my own perspective as a tracker and observer of nature. Included below is a video interview, in which I ask Jon Young to share his observations about this question.
In my own observations of nature over the years, I’ve kept both an eye and an ear out for opportune moments to learn about the voices of the birds. I’ve noticed that an animal’s typical behavior andhunting strategy both play into avian responses.
Of Stealth and Shadow. . .
Cats are stealthy ambush hunters that move slowly and as invisibly as possible during a hunt, spending much of their time setting up a good ambush position. When the moment is right, the strike is quick and efficient. A cat may linger in one spot for a long time waiting for the moment to strike. Bobcats, for instance, leave sphinx-like body impressions in the snow where they have been sitting in wait for a rabbit or hare.
The alarms generated by a sneaking cat or by an agitated, cautious cat tend to be very static, moving slowly or not at all if the cat remains hunkered down. The birds tend to create a parabolic shape, perched out of reach above the cat (see the video interview with Jon for an animation of this shape). Often, multiple types of bird species from the neighborhood will join in on the mobbing action. Cats do sometimes move faster, though, so we are really mostly talking about the tendencies of hunting or agitated, sneaking cats in relation to bird alarms, which is the feline action most likely to elicit a strong bird response.
Many types of cats, such as bobcats and pumas, use a faster overstep walk to cover ground between hunting areas, and often display a slinking trot for short periods if forced to shift positions in the open. A gallop pattern may be used during extreme hunting maneuvers, or if being chased. In general, though, the cats have a slow, measured demeanor about them. Remember this tendency while reading the bird language for clues to an animal’s presence.
What about canines? We can’t forget man’s best friend. I’ve often seen cooped-up house dogs run out the door with full steam and scare up a frenzy of birds. In it’s most explosive form, this short but energetic burst may cause a bird plow, with birds shooting up and away from the dog as if they were struck by a cue-ball. Usually, though, the alarm is more localized – such as a rambunctious house dog causing a song sparrow to hook, flying off the ground to perch perhaps five feet up in a raspberry tangle, uttering a short alarm note.
Once I sat quietly by the edge of a trail, sipping coffee and enjoying the morning bird songs. Suddenly, a covey of quail began making their staccato “pit-it-it” alarms in the distance (hear more sounds in the What the Robin Knows Audio Library).
Whatever was disturbing them passed quickly, for they soon ceased their alarms. A few seconds later, an American robin that had been feeding on the ground hooked up next to me, flying about five feet up onto the branch of a nearby apple tree. The robin uttered a sharp “tut-tut!” call.
Moments later, a gray fox trotted along the trail, passing within a few feet of me as he continued on his rounds. This incident was instructive, because in looking at it, we see some patterns common to canines in regard to bird language:
The fox was trotting, which is a typical gait used to cover ground by many canines. It is a faster gait than a walk, and an efficient way to travel for their body type. A trotting canine such as this gray fox tends to push up a sequence of alarms, as the canine quickly moves from one bird’s territory to another’s. This creates a “popcorn” effect of birds hooking up, getting out of the way and uttering a short call or series of calls which diminish after the animal passes through.
Since canines spend a vast majority of their time patrolling and looking (or smelling) for opportunities, they tend to cover a lot of ground each day. Therefore, the alarm shape most often elicited by their presence (when traveling in a trot) tends to be this popcorn effect, which is much faster moving and less “intense” sounding than the static alarms caused by a hunting or agitated cat.
To wax poetic, a trotting coyote or fox is like a flowing wave moving across the landscape, while a perched or sneaking cat is like a rock stuck in the sand, or molasses pouring out of a jar. They each have a very different “feeling” of intensity in their general presences and the alarms they elicit. That said, foxes and other canines do slow down when they stop to investigate or are setting up to pounce upon their prey. A stationary gray fox getting into a bird nest will present a very different bird language scenario than a trotting, traveling fox. So, we are talking here about general tendencies and characteristic patterns for each kind of animal. With the sophistication available currently with computer audio analysis, it would be very interesting to see just how refined a pattern it is possible to detect for recognizing a species through bird alarms.
Context is Key. . .
Bird language is very context dependent, so it always helps to get a sense of the bigger ecological setting and the intent that the animal’s behavior is cluing you (and the birds) into. Think about it – if you were a bird, say a parent robin, would you be more concerned about the well-fed cat lounging in the open in the back yard, or the hungry-looking cat slinking toward you in the shadows? And, imagine that you can’t quite see the cat, but you know something is in there. . . because the towhees and sparrows that frequent the thicket floor are are now perched higher up, and are looking down into the shadows and alarming with agitation (of course, who knows what’s really going on the robin’s inner world. . . but for me, at least, this helps gives perspective to the scenario).
Certainly the cat in the open would demand some respect and enough distance to stay out of harm’s way, and perhaps even elicit a mild alarm note on first appearance, but once the element of surprise is gone, I’ve often noticed that a relaxed, lounging house cat merits little bird response beyond a “buffer zone” of safety. The moment of surprise is what gives the ambush predator enough advantage to win the game. The stealthy predator that could appear at any moment from the shadows is the most to be feared. It’s the robin that is keeping an eye on the shadows, and an ear to the sparrows in the thicket, that lives the longest.
Interview with Jon Young – What Birds Have to Say About Cat & Dogs:
About the Author:
Josh Lane is an avid wildlife tracker and bird language observer. He contributed to the “How to Learn Bird Language” section of the book, What the Robin Knows, and developed the Backyard Bird Language online course. Josh is a nature connection mentor with 8 Shields in Northern California, and has presented bird language trainings at events around North America, including the 2013 National Audubon Conference.