Backyard Biology

Nature stories from my backyard and beyond

Nature Activities

Talking to the Birds

Friday, May 6, 2011

Bird feeders are a wonderful way to observe nature. Over the years, I have had over 30 types of birds visit my feeders, allowing me an opportunity to watch their behavior. Not only does the bird feeder bring the birds within my sight, it also brings them within my hearing, allowing me to study their songs. This is important because any good birder will tell you that the majority of birds are found by sound, often their sound being the only way to identify them as they sit high in a tree.

Bird sounds are not only used for identification, but for understanding behaviors as well. Many birds have different calls for attracting a mate, gathering together, or for danger. Learning these different calls helps us to understand what is going on in the birld world. For instance a murder of crows (a group of crows) making a ruckus often indicates they have found and are mobbing a hawk or owl.

By learning a few bird calls and imitating them, or playing recordings of bird calls, you can often interact with the birds. I first noticed this when I imitated the three-note territorial call of the tufted titmouse. Whenever I imitated this call, the local titmouse would come looking for the intruder, often hopping from tree to tree in search of the other bird.

Of course it goes without saying that birds not only make sounds, they also listen to sounds. They listen not only to the calls of their own species, but to others as well. Since my bird feeder draws a lot of songbirds, it also draws a number of hawks that regularly come swooping in to feed on the birds. So it should come as no surprise that the birds at my feeder listen for and react to the sound of the hawks.

In this activity, we will see just what effect the call of different raptors - hawks and owls - have on the the birds at my feeder.


  • a well-visited bird feeder
  • a recording of different hawks and owls.

    I use a laptop connected to the internet and external speakers, but any recording will do.


  1. Pick a day when there are plenty of birds at the feeder. A wide assortment of birds is best, including ground birds and perching birds.

  2. Set up your recording device so the calls can be heard by the birds but will not visually disturb the birds.

    Since my bird feeders are directly outside my kitchen window, I set up my computer at the table where I can see the birds, and place the external speakers outside the window. This way, I can not only observe the birds from inside the house where I won’t disturb them, I can also stay warm if I am doing this experiment in the winter.

  3. Play the call from one of the raptors and record the effect on the birds at the feeder. Do they stop feeding? Do they freeze or look skyward? Do they fly away? How long does it take them to return to normal behavior?

  4. Record your observations.

  5. The next day, repeat the experiment with another raptor call.
    By waiting for the next day to repeat the experiment, you will not seriously interupt the birds ability to feed, nor will you scare them away for good.

One would expect that the calls of accipiters such as the coopers and sharp-shinned hawks would have the most effect on the birds, since these hawks feed regularly on birds at a feeder while the calls of owls have the least effect on the birds since they are not known to feed on birds at a feeder. Do your results support this?


Thanks to my friend Maureen McConnell for this activity.