Bird song, or lack thereof; Other forms of audible communication (part 4)

Whilst most birds can sing or make some sort of call, there are a few species which don’t have a voice and have to find alternative ways to communicate.  And for other birds who do have a voice, they may find that supplementing their calls with other sounds can help them out.

To make these other sounds, they employ different parts of their body including their bills, wings and tail feathers.


The woodpecker is the obvious example of a bird which drums and whilst they do carry this out to feed and create holes, it can also be used to communicate.  Through the beating they can convey information about their species, sex, who they are (as an individual) and their emotional state.

Storks also use their bills to communicate but instead of drumming, they clapper them together, rapidly opening and closing their beaks to make a noisy clatter which is amplified by their throat pouch.  They use this to communicate in a number of situations including as part of their nest greeting ceremony, during mating and as alarm calls.


Some birds deliberately make sounds using their wings, for example the mute swan can make a humming sound and the red grouse can make a dramatic whirring which is used to startle attackers.

Clapping and zooming sounds are used by other birds as part of mating display and broadbills make a sound which has been called a ‘stylized wing beat’ by an ornithologist.

The crested crested pigeon has a very unusual eighth primary wing feather which produces high note when the bird starts to fly and is used as an alarm call.  The noise is made as they fly away from danger and the faster they fly the higher the pitch which means other crested pigeons know that the threat is getting closer.  You can listen to the difference between normal flight sounds and alarm flight sounds on Science News.

Tail feathers

Not content with its fancy decoration, the peacock agitates his tail feathers to make a rustling clattering noise as part of their mating display.

The snipe creates a bleating or whinnying sound with special tail feathers.  During courtship, they spread them during dives as as they head to earth they beat them in a specific way to create the sound.  Anna’s Hummingbirds also use tail feathers to create their mating song as they dive.

And then there’s the sage grouse…

Possibly the strangest sound made by birds is a popping noise which the sage grouse creates as part of his mating display.  They use their air-sacs both in display but also to make the popping which can carry up to 3km and which is apparently very attractive to a female sage grouse…

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