The various calls of blue tits

Now that Spring has finally arrived, I thought it would be nice to write something about the calls of blue tits. Blue tits (Latin name: Parus caeruleus) are a species in the order of songbirds, and like all singing birds, the male tits sing a song to defend their territory and to attract a mate with whom to start a family. What strikes me, however, is that most people only know to recognize the song of a bird and are quite ignorant of the many calls that singing birds can also make. During my lectures and courses on animal communication I always show all kinds of calls that birds make. For the same reason I am presenting below the various calls that blue tits produce, as an example of a more rich and varied acoustic communication that all birds possess.

Before I continue, I should first explain a little about the differences between birdsong and bird calls. Songs are learned by the juvenile birds by listening to local models such as their fathers and neighbours. The fact that song is learned is a similarity with human language, where children learn to talk or sign by listening to and watching adult humans. Another similarity with human language is that in birds with a fixed repertoire of songs a critical period exists in which the birds must have learned their song, on average about 1 year. After that, these birds only produce what is called subsong, unstructured and incomplete versions of actual song. In humans too, a critical or sensitive period exists for acquiring language. If a child has not been exposed to language before puberty, he or she will never learn complete language. The child can learn individual words or signs, but then fails to make structured, grammatical combinations. This was most dramatically demonstrated in the 1970s by the child Genie, who had been neglected and kept in a small room by her parents, hardly ever hearing language around her.

Only three orders of birds produce song: songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds. All other birds only produce calls or wholly innate song, like the cuckoo. Bird calls are not learned, but are usually innate. Calls are usually simpler and shorter than song, but they cover a wider variety of functions, for example, serving communication about food in food calls and begging calls, social cohesion of a group by contact or location calls, group coordination by flight calls, fighting out conflicts by aggression calls, and coordinating mating by mating and copulation calls. Most songbirds have between 5 and 10 different calls, besides the song that they produce. Let me present those that I know of that blue tits make.

Contact or location calls.

These are short calls that birds give in order to stay in touch with each other and that inform on their location. Most calls that bird make are often classified as contact calls, when there might still be more varied functions of these calls that scientists haven’t noticed yet. Click here and here for some examples of blue tit contact calls.

Scolding call.

This call is made by blue tits when someone gets too close to them or to their nest, as well as to accompany aggressive interactions amongst each other, therefore, the term ‘scolding.’ It’s a sound that you can often here around your house. The scolding call also functions as an alarm call to warn for ground predators such as foxes, cats and dogs, or low flying predators and perched owls. Click here and here for two examples.

Seeet call.

This is an alarm call for predators in the sky like raptors such as sparrowhawks. Many songbirds have a similar sounding alarm call and birds of different species can be warned by listening to each other’s alarm call. Adults as well as the chicks in the nest then keep silent and turn immobile in order not to get caught. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to find a sound file of this call. If you know of one, please contact me.

Distress call.

This call is made when a blue tit is seized by a predator (human or other). I have been unable to find an audio file yet.

Begging call.

The call that chicks make in the nest to beg for food from their parents. Click here for an example.

Feeding call.

This is a short, low-pitched call that parent birds make when chicks don’t beg for food and the parents have food for them. Its aim is to make the chicks open their beaks to receive the food. Fabrizio Grieco recorded this call in the National Park Hoge Veluwe, when he was affiliated with the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. Fabrizio was able to imitate the feeding call and found the blue tit chicks then opened their beaks. Several other passerines, like the great tit, also make a feeding call. In a few instances, Fabrizio found that parents also made this call when they carried a prey that was relatively large for the chicks’ mouths, making feeding difficult. Fabrizio has been very helpful in giving me more information and he sent me this short video of a parent blue tit making the call. Click here to see it on my Facebook page. You can hear it at 10:10:51 (it’s very short), just after the parent bird picks up an insect and the chicks don’t beg. Right after the feeding call they open their beaks.

Copulation call.

These are a series of high-pitched notes that are made by both sexes before and during copulation. It is similar to the begging call a female blue tit may make when a male blue tit enters the nest with fresh prey. I don’t have an audio file of it yet.

And here is a short film of a blue tit singing his song, and making contact calls and the scolding alarm call:

I hope you enjoyed this post about the calls of blue tits. Let me know if you have further information about blue tit calls or if you have any further audio or video files that could be of use. I hope next time you see and hear blue tits, you will grasp a little more of what they’re communicating.

References

  • Stephen R. Anderson. (2004). Doctor Dolittle’s delusion. Animals and the uniqueness of human language. Yale University Press.
  • Fabrizio Grieco. (2001). Short-term regulation of food-provisioning rate and effect on prey size in blue tits, Parus caeruleus. Animal Behaviour, 62, 107-116.
  • Peter Marler. (2004). Bird calls. Their potential for behavioral neurobiology. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1016, 31-44.
  • Don Stap. (2005). Birdsong. New York: Scribner.
  • The audio files are from a great website called Xeno-Canto, a community database of bird sounds from all over the world. Thanks to the following people for uploading the blue tit calls: Volker Arnold, Patrik Aberg en Sander Bot.

3 Comments

Filed under Animal Communication, Lectures and courses

3 responses to “The various calls of blue tits

  1. hey mijn lievie . leuk is dit zo via facebook. ik kan het laten vertalen door google translate naar het nederlands .mooi zo en boeiend . kussies . je mannetje de dierentekenaar.

  2. Interessant, Steban, mooie foto´s. Leuk dat we een interesse delen! Ik ga nog beter op pimpelmezen letten !!!

  3. Thanks so much for the informative post! I’ve been trying to learn the calls of the blue tits out my window, and this was very helpful.

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