How Do You Make A Dictionary For Birds?

The words of birds are far more than just “cheep cheep” and “twitter,” and one dictionary tries to collect as many as possible.
Two puffins communicating with bird language, presumably

In the animal world, humans are the most linguistically accomplished. Birds, though, are up there on the list. Sure, they don’t have the individual expressiveness of humans — you’ll never hear two birds discussing life and the universe — but these sky creatures fill the world with melodious sound, with each species contributing in its own way. A walk through nature reveals that there is more to bird language than tweets and chitters.

Is it ridiculous to think there could be a dictionary of bird language? Possibly. But that didn’t stop John Bevis, who wrote Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds, a guide to the sounds birds make (though it’s confined to North America, Britain and Northern Europe). Most of the book is devoted to the glossary of terms — the sounds are listed in alphabetical order — but Bevis also gives insight into how birds sing, the history of recording birdsong and why it’s worth taking on this project in the first place.

How Birds Talk

When you walk into a forest and open your ears, you’ll be hit by a barrage of sound. To a layperson, this cacophony of twitters means only one thing: “there’s birds here.” But for a seasoned birder, these sounds can reveal exactly which birds are around. How has this complex bird soundscape come about?

For the most part, the sounds a bird can make are determined by the body of the bird. The same goes for any animal, really. Humans were able to use language in part because our bodies developed in a way that allows us to produce a wide variety of sounds, which we then used for speech. A lot of the way a bird talks, then, is decided by what cheeps and chirps it can physically create. That’s why you’ll never hear a robin squawking like a crow.

Birdsong is not entirely dictated by how a bird is born. Birds also learn their songs, making bird language a mixture of instinct and acquisition. In his book, Bevis notes that birds like the greenfinch can pass down melodies from generation to generation. There are also birds that are capable of learning new songs throughout their lives, and birds that can only learn when they’re young.

Because birds learn from their environment, that means birds have their own dialects. The same species of bird will sound different depending on whether it was raised in New Zealand or England, for example. One study found that a single bird — the white-crowned sparrow — had at least 10 distinct dialects in the Bay Area, California, meaning a very careful bird-watcher (bird-listener?) could tell you exactly where a bird is from. It’s not easy, sure, but it’s possible.

Compiling A Bird Language Dictionary

The task of actually creating a bird dictionary is, when you think about it, pretty difficult. The alphabet we use is designed to capture human noises, and trying to apply that to birds is, at best, an imperfect process. But that didn’t stop Bevis from trying.

The quest to write down bird sounds is not entirely unreasonable. We know, for example, that cuckoo is the sound that a cuckoo makes, and most people don’t question that. We know that crows go caw caw, and we’ve built a massive social media empire based around the idea that many birds tweet and twitter.

Bevis explains a bit of his methodology, and the guiding principle is that the entries in Aaaaw to Zzzzzd are only a loose interpretation of sounds, not a direct transcription. When a human produces a k sound, for example, they press their tongue against the top of their mouth in the back and then blow air to separate the tongue and the roof. This description doesn’t match bird anatomy at all. But still, when you hear a crow, the k at least sounds like it’s there. Thus, when Bevis makes a judgment about a sound (and he has consulted others in the field), he’s doing his best to approximate the sound.

There is also a bit of interpretation on the reader’s part that has to go on here. When you see a red-billed pigeon is marked as saying hup-hup-a-whoo, you know that you can’t just read that with an affectless human voice. You kind of have to get into the spirit of it.

Bevis also compiles another tool in the birder arsenal: mnemonics. Depending on where you grew up, you may have heard that a great horned owl says “are you awake? me too,” or that a bluebird says “purity purity purity.” Of course, they don’t really say these things, but it can certainly sound like they do. Something about the rhythm of these phrases matches the sounds the birds make. And when you’re trying to identify birds, it’s a lot easier to remember these little phrases than a collection of nearly random letters and vowels.

How Useful Is A Bird Language Dictionary?

Given all of the reservations about capturing bird language with human writing, how useful can this dictionary be? It would likely be easier to work from recordings, so that you can actually hear what a bird sounds like instead of guessing based on a written approximation. Bevis points out that a written record is useful because it gives the “general” rather than the “specific,” which seems like the kind of argument someone who’s already in the process of writing a bird dictionary would make.

That’s not to say there aren’t real benefits to making a bird language dictionary, though. While listening to bird sounds is useful when you see a bird and wonder what it sounds like, it’s not going to work when you hear a sound and wonder what the bird looks like. Yes, there are still flaws. If what you hear sounds different from what Bevis hears, it’ll be hard to figure out which bird it is. And when there are similar entries like tac tac, tac-tac-tac, tak tak and tak-tak-tak, confusion can definitely happen.

Perhaps what makes a bird language dictionary useful most of all is its valiant attempts to capture the diversity and uniqueness of bird language. It’s a dangerous game to anthropomorphize animals — you don’t want to imbue meaning when there isn’t any there — but thinking about the relationship between bird and human communication is linguistically useful. We’re all just animals that branched off evolutionarily millions of years ago, and we’re doing our best to understand our long-lost, feathery cousins.

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