Humans and Chickadees Understand Each Other

Chickadees Aren’t Just Cute, They Understand Humans

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Do you ever get the feeling that the songbirds you’re feeding in your backyard understand you when you “talk” to them?

I’ve always questioned if there was something universal about the sounds we make that allows songbirds to figure out how we’re feeling.

According to research by University of Alberta scientists, humans, Black-capped Chickadees, and songbirds understand how others are feeling through different levels of vocalizations.

Besides being adorable, these cute little songbirds get us, humans.

Besides being adorable, Black-capped Chickadees understand humans
Besides being adorable, Black-capped Chickadees understand humans

Songbirds and Humans Understand Other Species

The research discovered both humans and black-capped chickadees could identify arousal levels in other species.

“The idea is that some species can understand other species’ vocalizations,” explains Jenna Congdon, a Ph.D. student in at the university’s psychology department.

Congdon says a songbird can understand the call of distress of different types of songbirds when they are in the presence of a predator, like an owl or a hawk.

Or if your friend scares you and you scream.

“Both of these are high-arousal vocalizations, and being able to understand what that sounds like in a different species can be very useful,” she says.

Read: Black-capped Chickadee is One-half Ounce of Sheer Toughness

Songbirds understand the call of distress of different types of songbirds when they are in the presence of a predator, like an owl or a hawk
Songbirds understand the call of distress of different types of songbirds when they are in the presence of a predator, like an owl or a hawk

Sounds Like It

Congdon completed two experiments, one involving chickadees and the other involving humans.

Participants distinguished between high- and low-arousal vocalizations produced by other species.

Including alligators, chickadees, elephants, humans, pandas, piglets, ravens, macaques, and tree frogs.

Different Species Understand

Congdon says chickadees were able to identify high arousal among other chickadees, humans and giant pandas.

“This is fascinating because a chickadee that has never come across a giant panda before can categorize high — and low — arousal vocalizations,” says Congdon.

The researchers suspect other species — such as bats, whales, dolphins, and elephants — who learn their vocalizations from parents to survive may have the ability as well.

So next time you’re outside feeding your songbirds, be careful about what you say.

The songbirds understand you.


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  1. Not only do birds understand intonation, but they are very sensitive to facial expressions (i.e. Marzluff). In working with a parrot I found that a smile was a great reward, as parrots appear highly sensitivite to that facial expression.

    More importantly, I recorded and determined through recorded evidence that a parrot is capable of learning language, not just repeating words. My efforts build on efforts to analyze chickadee calls in which the researchers determined through computer analysis that chickadees have what qualified as language. My work shows that birds are able to learn human language, understand the words, and create new sentences to express ideas and thoughts. I wrote a book about the bird’s abilities and statements called “Another Kind of Mind: A Talking Bird Masters English.”

    It is amazing what we do NOT know about birds. They are much smarter than most people realize. English is just a second language for a bird that has a native language or even a protolanguage.

  2. I’ve been uncertain what to do when a terrified juvenile perches on my hand, but is too afraid to take food. So I’m pleased to learn that a smile or a soft voice might reassure her that I’m not going to chase and demand my peanut back!

  3. I have several chickadees who, not only come to visit my feeder, but come to visit me. Here on my laptop I am very close to the window and it is open to a quince bush where I have my feeder. They come, and vocalize to me inside, and expect me to answer them, and I do. With whistle-ly little phisses that they like. I also have a red cardinal who comes and expects some form of interaction. All of them see me every day outside refilling the feeder. I have blue jays who regularly come and call for peanuts. I am their slave, and I throw some on the roof, (in the shell, of course). The sounds of them landing on the roof top excites them greatly. The crows also come around for scraps and peanuts. I adore my birds and every day it is a pleasure to interact with them.

  4. I regret not understanding their language. I do mimic their calls but am unsure what Im saying to them. Is there a tutorial on the meaning of bird calls?
    I have a good sized feeding station in the Green Mountains & the birds love it when I bring out my guitar & “jam” with them. I still recall a windy late afternoon when I was fingerpicking & singing Appalachian & old traditionals and one sweet yellow finch stayed on a branch grasping tightly, almost getting blown off & singing loudly with me until it started to get darker & I had to go in & make dinner.

  5. There is research about chickadees that indicates that they have a ‘language.’ The study is a computer analysis of syllables; the study authors did not decode the language.

    The idea that birds understand human language is indicated by several books about ravens and crows by Bernd Heinrick. He tells of crows kept at pets who responded to language. There also accounts of parrots talking to each other in German reports from the late 1800s.

    In my work with a macaw (parrot), the bird demostrated understanding for many aspects of language including the ability to use adjectives and several verbal tenses. She also understands pronouns and correctly refers to people, animals using I, me, him, he, she, and so one. She understands here and there in reference to places.

    She can converse in English with up to four-part responses. She speaks of her own volition about different topics and constructs original sentences using her enormous vocabulary. For more information see her Internet site: . If you want to really understand how smart birds are, read my book, “Another Kind of Mind: A Talking Bird Masters English.” Contact me for signed or direct purchase at .

    Mike Florida

  6. I have been talking to black head chickadees for years. In my garden I have a colony of Chickadees nesting and feeding in my apple trees: they do a beautiful job; no need for pesticides, that is for sure.
    Sometime I respond to their call by saying with a soft voice “chickadee-dee Chickadee dee dee”. They would come right away on a branch about 5 feet from me. It is often the boss of the colony who has a distinctive different call. They never do that when I have visitors.

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