An Introduction to Animal Communication

An Introduction to Animal Communication

This post is just a very short introduction to animal communication. There is so much that can be said on this subject. Here I focus on Human and animal communication.

We tend to think of communication as an indication of intelligence and, because our ability to understand Human communication is much more developed, I suspect this has contributed greatly to our overestimation of Human intelligence in the wider web of life. It has certainly dominated our understanding of the wider world – sometimes for the better, but often with a kind of arrogance. We can be over-reliant on books and documentaries, on science and the spoken word for our understanding of the world.

The ability of certain animals to communicate in ways that we find easier to understand increases our connection and understanding. We tend to form close relationships to birds and to other mammals. Birds are superb communicators. We may not know exactly what is being expressed, but for many birds most of us are probably able to tell an alarm call from a song. Those short, sharp ticks and squawks are a far cry from melodic song. Sharp or scratchy sounds that are not especially easy on the ear are the rule of thumb for raising the alarm (think of the grating fire or car alarm – not something you want to hear endlessly).

Of course, not all birds use sounds we might recognise as song. You may not be aware that a drumming Woodpecker is actually communicating. They do have alarm calls too. Parakeets and Crows can sound plain alarmed or angry regardless of the mood. We get really valuable cues from body language too.

Often we do not realise how much we are able to understand. So here is a challenge for you to see how much you are able to discern the next time you encounter an animal. See if you can tell how they are feeling, whether they are about to move, whether they are welcomed or accepted by other animals nearby, and maybe the most important cue to read of all – whether they have noticed your presence and how they feel about it.

For a period of a few months over the Spring, I would walk the same route every day. I got to know the different bird territories by their calls and songs. It was really useful, because it meant I could navigate almost with my eyes shut. These birds told me lots about what was going on – if there was a Heron nearby or a Cat, if the River was flooded. Each breeding season the territories change and the behaviours and soundtrack change throughout the year, but it is such a wonderful way to get to know a space and to really feel a part of the local Wild community. It gives valuable clues about how you can be helpful and how you can advocate for the Wild kin in your neighbourhood.

I highly recommend learning a few of your most common birdsongs in the Winter (perhaps up to 5 – in the UK, Robin, Blackbird, Wren, Great Tit, Song Thrush are good ones to start with. Lucy Lapwing on YouTube does excellent videos. You could also use the Merlin phone app to help you to ID the birds).

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