Understanding Alarm Calls of Birds

Among the many benefits of paying attention to bird sounds is that they give you an insight into what the birds are doing. Through their songs and calls the birds announce not only their presence, but also what they are doing.

One example is the mobbing of predators. Birds give alarm calls when they see a predator, and in many cases they even have calls specific to an avian predator like a hawk or owl. In June 2011 I was at the Pine Butte Guest Ranch in Montana, and heard alarm calls from several species including some very agitated American Robins. By carefully tracking the sounds up the hill through the forest I was eventually able to find and digiscope this Northern Pygmy-Owl, sitting at the base of a big Douglas-Fir with a Red Crossbill in its talons.

The robins led me right to it (which was probably their intention), but only because I understood their calls and thought that I might find a predator there. This is something you can learn through experience, and you can learn more quickly just by paying attention to these calls. The next time you see a hawk or an owl, or if you’ve attracted some songbirds by using an owl call imitation, listen carefully to the sounds they are making, and then listen for the same sounds later while you’re birding.

Birds give a lot of “false alarms” or brief low-level alarms. With practice you will become sensitive to the higher intensity of real alarm calls, and when these calls are sustained for several minutes, and directed at one spot, you can be fairly certain a predator is there. If you hear robins that sound like the ones in this video, go check it out!

13 thoughts on “Understanding Alarm Calls of Birds”

  1. Great alarm video David.!

    We used alarms to spot a coopers hawk just the other day!
    All the best!

    1. Hi Jeff, Nice. Another time at Pine Butte I was in the aspen grove just up the trail, and suddenly the songbirds stopped singing and I heard a few quiet Robin and Ruby-crowned Kinglet alarm calls. I saw nothing, but tried making a squeaking sound, and an adult Goshawk came gliding out of the woods right at me!

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    1. Ha ha. To clarify, my point is that the robins are trying to be disruptive. I’ve seen this play out many times. Birds scold a predator, or the prey itself screams, and that attracts the attention of another predator. The interaction of the two predators then gives the prey a chance to escape. If I had approached more closely and quickly, the Pygmy-Owl might have chosen to fly and leave the crossbill. I don’t think the robins are acting out of compassion for the crossbill, just trying to make life difficult for the owl.

  5. Sad story here. June 30 we installed a Bird-X bird predator machine in our horse barn along with a netting across the top third of the double door entries to clear out pigeons that were crapping on everything and everyone. We turned it on only spurratically when we were annoyed by the pigeons, usually at dusk for 1-2 hours. What we experienced over the following 6 weeks was incredible. I think we actually ATTRACTED owls and hawks. We saw these giants fly into our barn, snatch a pigeon and fly away. We personally witnessed this twice. Then, on July 30 my furbaby kitty that I’ve had 16 years since a baby as indoor/outdoor went missing. #vanished. August 13 another furbaby kitty that I’ve had 18 years since a baby as indoor/outdoor went missing. I walked the acreage and discovered she was consumed. By Coyote or Fox, not positive, but right in our back yard! !##
    Sure wish stupid people like me were warned about the dangers of messing with predatory wild life before purchasing. So very very heartbroken.

  6. The sad story above is exactly why my cats are indoor only! Too many abusive people out there too.
    But living in AZ I had this Mockingbird that when danger was around they make a chirp chirp then long chirp. My mother & i always knew when something was bothering the bird. The bird would come to the carport and keep the danger chirp at our door waiting for me to come help. I would come out & ask her “where is he?” & off she would fly to back pasture, or front trees, or to camper. There was always a cat. She took me to the tree so I got the water hose and sprayed at the cat. The bird sat just inches away on same branch as if laughing at the cat! Off the cat would run with bird pecking it. Next may be the pasture, but she always comes to door to get me.
    I listen to the online mockingbird chirps & the alarm ones and none sound like these mockingbirds with the 2 chirps the long chirp but if you listen, they talk to you all day!

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  8. I Was Wondering If At Night When They Sing Which Alarm Tactic Do They Perform As A Sign Of Danger Such As Big Wildlife Like Coyotes-Pumas & Etc. Big Predators?
    I’m In The Suburbs & There’s Both City Limits & Outscurts Of Country Like Areas Where I Live It’s All Pretty & Dandy Till Night Time… We Have Owls,Foxs,Coyotes I Spotted A Mountain Lion Once It’s Crazy

    I’m Just Curious Which Bird Makes What Rythmd Alarm Call When A Coyte Or Puma
    Is Near Just For Safety Precautions Only

  9. There is a robin that has been alarm calling constantly for the last two days. We live in a small suburb, robins are common. Pretty sure there is a nest nearby, but the bird is constant alarm calling. Maybe an owl has decided to build a nest nearby? I did see two Pileated woodpeckers close by yesterday; and also some crows have been cawing a lot in the distance. I did observe a large crow come to the yard. I watched the crow land near the bird, and wondered if it might be attacking it, but then the crow flew to another tree and the robin followed. This happened a few times, the crow flying to different tree, the bird following. We live near a train track, so its a bit woodsy behind us. There are housecats in the neighborhood, raccoons, a fox or two, but not slinking around during the day. I cannot think why the poor bird is this distressed for hours on end. Any ideas on what could be causing it? Is there anything I could do to help mitigate?

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