Jan 25 2009
Birds of course use song and call notes to communicate but, just like humans, body language is a big part of their repertoire. It’s amazing how easily you can see what a bird is thinking if you watch its behavior.
When an eastern screech-owl is worried he bobs his head. Aggressive house sparrows make their bodies horizontal and gape their beaks. Agitated northern cardinals raise their crests. Calm or submissive birds keep their feathers sleek, their wings and tails closed and their crests down – like this cardinal.
When a bird is agitated or aggressive there are many levels of intensity. At the lowest level he puts his body in a horizontal position and raises his crest or head feathers. Click on this calm cardinal to see an angry one in this pose.
If a bird is really worked up he fluffs out his body feathers. If that isn’t enough he opens his wings to appear larger. And to absolutely make his point he opens his beak. I have a great example of this – all but the open beak – if you click here to see Dorothy, the mother peregrine falcon at University of Pittsburgh, defending her babies on banding day in 2004.
Some body language is not so clear, as in the mysterious wing flick gesture practiced by northern mockingbirds. Ornithologists are not absolutely sure why mockingbirds quickly open and close their wings in a raised V – perhaps to startle insects, perhaps to attract attention. I do know that if a person flicks out his arms the way a mockingbird flicks his wings he will certainly attract attention!
And so my thoughts came full circle. Wouldn’t it be amazing if people showed their emotions the way birds do? I laughed to think of a business meeting in which an outspoken person gaped his mouth (beak) to make his point and everyone around the table slowly raised their crests.
It would add a whole new dimension to our body language.
(Northern cardinal photos by Chuck Tague, peregrine falcon (Dorothy) photo by Jack Rowley)