Weather Forecast


Blane Klemek column: Animal communication takes a variety of forms

In the animal world, communication is accomplished in a multitude of ways; some of which include vocalizations, body language, scents, sounds and other signals.

For example, while you sit and watch your birdfeeders, take note of the many and varied ways birds communicate with one another.

Several species of finches, which are frequently quite abundant at my feeders throughout the year, especially common redpolls this past winter, will often raise the feathers on their heads after landing on a feeder. This subtle display usually serves as a signal of dominance.

On typical tube-type feeders that have the usual four to six seed ports and perching pegs, it's often the case that there are many more birds than there are pegs. You may observe birds from time to time trying to force their way onto others' feeding spots. Depending on the individual bird subject to displacement on the "pecking" order, it may or may not give up its spot.

I've also observed other interesting communication behaviors. For instance, perching goldfinches and purple finches often posture in crouched, submissive manners, squawking at the various aggressive bird or birds while flapping their wings vigorously. The display reminds me of adult-size juvenile birds begging for food from their parents, and perhaps that's exactly what it is in some cases.

Blue jays have always been labeled as a bullying bird. For sure, like many of its relatives such as crows and magpies, blue jays relish the opportunity to mob owls and other raptors. Their raucous nature and gang-like behavior would give anyone the idea that jays are the thugs of the bird world.

But in actuality, blue jays are skittish and easily frightened birds. I've watched many times much smaller birds' sudden appearance on a shared feeder scare off blue jays. Have these smaller birds somehow figured out that surprise appearances are their ally and the jays' foe? It could be.

Yet it's also possible that being "jumpy" is the very tactic that helps blue jays survive another day. In a world full of predators, being an unobservant or sloth-like blue jay would be detrimental.

Still, the blue jay has a trick or two up its feathery sleeves.

No dummy, the blue jay has the unique ability to mimic, though nothing approaching that of a mockingbird's abilities. The blue jay can imitate the cry of a red-tailed hawk fairly accurately. It is believed that this vocal mimicry has the advantage of displacing other birds from food sources that they themselves have intentions of utilizing.

Thus, by sounding like a hawk the blue jay can scare other birds away. Does it work? Since I frequently hear the calls being used, I assume it must be effective to some degree otherwise it wouldn't be a part of the blue jays' "bag of tricks."

It won't be long and male American robins will be filling city backyards and country woodlands with their telltale songs of springtime. Songs and calls are the forms of communication amongst birds that we most readily identify with.

The songs of the male robin, and most perching birds for that matter, are music to our ears. But to the birds that produce the medleys, such vocalization serves primarily as a territorial warning to other male birds to stay clear.

In some birds, however, like the black-capped chickadee, the song of breeding males serves another purpose: a calling card for a likely mate. Recent research has shown that male chickadees producing the most desirable songs are more likely to be chosen as a mate by a receptive female. In the case of the chickadee, if you sing the song right, you get the girl.

Similarly, male sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens perform unique calls, sounds and rituals to attract mates.

These two species of "prairie" grouse produce amazing sounds with many parts of their bodies, both internal and external. Tail feathers, dancing feet, inflated air sacs on their necks and an assortment of vocalizations all work together in creating a commotion that's irresistible to receptive females.

Male wild turkeys, often simply called toms or gobblers, will soon be, if not already, displaying signals of their own. The well-recognized displays that tom turkeys perform - the puffed out feathers, the fanned-out tails, and the gobbling vocalizations - serve definite purposes. During the spring breeding season, adult gobblers compete with other males for the attention of hens. Toms will establish "strutting zones" and will aggressively defend these areas from other toms.

And there are, of course, many more displays, signals, and forms of interesting communiqué that will be noticeable very shortly in wetlands, woods and waterways near you. From winnowing snipe to singing male eastern bluebirds, they'll soon be among us.

Indeed, ways of communication between species of wildlife are wide and varied. Many furbearing mammals erect their hair in displays of aggression and fear. White-tailed deer often escape predators while holding their tails erect, revealing the stark white underside as a warning to others of present danger.

The beaver slaps its tail on the water as an alarm call, the woodpecker taps trees for territorial sound effects, the spring peeper peeps to attract a lady peeper and the male ruffed grouse beats the air with his wings to produce drumming sounds to advertise his presence.

From subtle signals to brazenly unmistakable noises and actions, observing and listening to wildlife communicating is what it's all about as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at