Tag Archives: bird calls

“Communication and language in animals” course for everyone

In the past few years I have given with great success the course “Communication and language in animals. Recent developments in scientific research” at various universities in The Netherlands for the Higher Education for Older People (HOVO), in which I discuss the current scientific state of affairs with regard to the natural communication of all kinds of animals and the results from language research with various animals. At the HOVOs this course was only available for people of 50 years and older. I repeatedly got requests to organize this course also for people younger than 50 and now it’s time to do so. The Institute for Animals in Philosophy and Science is organizing this November a 3-day course “Communication and language in animals” for people of all ages.


The horse Clever Hans, early 20th century Berlin. Hans purportedly could answer many human questions...

The horse Clever Hans, early 20th century Berlin. Hans purportedly could answer many human questions…

Birds sing, dogs bark, and humans talk: everywhere animals are communicating. In the animal kingdom communication takes place in all kinds of ways. At a certain moment in evolution animal communication developed into human language. The question that scientists and philosophers have been asking for generations, is whether humans have a lonely position as the only animals with language. From the beginning of the 20th century many studies have been carried out in which scientists tried to teach all kinds of nonhuman animals (parts of) the human language. Science has also made a lot of progress in the study of the natural communicaton of animals. In this course we will discuss the current state of affairs with regard to research on communication and language in animals. The course will give you a broad overview, in which the communication and language research with nonhuman animals is presented in a critical manner.

Day 1. Saturday 2 November: Communication and human language: Characteristics and definitions. Language development in human children. The alarm calls of vervet monkeys and prairie dogs. The communication and dances of honeybees. The communication of whales and dolphins.

What information about predators do these prairie dogs communicate to each other?

What information about predators do these prairie dogs communicate to each other?

On the first day we will discuss the various kinds of communication that exist. In order to make a proper distinction between animal communication and human language, the characteristics of human language are presented. We discuss the relationship between language and brain and we will look at language acquisition in human children. We will also look at the interpretation of animal communication: only an expression of passions and emotions, or can animals also refer to various things in the outside world? What meaning can be found in the alarm calls of vervet monkeys and prairie dogs? We will also discuss the dances of honeybees, with which bees can transmit information about food locations. Finally, the natural communication of whales and dolphins is presented, including whale song.

Day 2. Saturday 9 November: The natural communication of, and language research with, the great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

The chimpanzee Tatu makes the sign for BLACK.

The chimpanzee Tatu makes the sign for BLACK.

How do our closest relatives communicate? In the past few decades our knowledge has increased about the various forms of communication of the great apes. We will discuss the communicative nature of the facial expressions of great apes, their particular vocalizations, and the communicative gestures that great apes naturally use. Next, the language research with great apes is presented. For more than a century, scientists have attempted to teach a human language to great apes in all kinds of, often controversial, studies. Chimpanzees and other apes were used in experiments in order to make them pronounce human spoken words. Later, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans were taught signs with which to communicate with humans. Famous apes like the chimpanzee Washoe and the gorilla Koko learned over a hundred signs. Nevertheless, soon the ape language controversy started, because in what way can we talk about actual language in these apes? We will discuss the methodological pitfalls and mistakes in interpretations and conclusions. I will also present my own study of the apes in language research. Finally, we will also discuss the research with Kanzi and other bonobos who learned to communicate by using geometric symbols (lexigrams).

Day 3. Saturday 16 November: Bird song and bird calls. Language research with dolphins, sealions and parrots. Understanding of human communicative signals by dogs and other domesticated animals. Language research with dogs. Evolution of human language.

Songbirds sing songs, but also have all kinds of calls with which they communicate.

Songbirds sing songs, but also have all kinds of calls with which they communicate.

All bird species have various kinds of calls: to remain in contact with each other, to express emotions, to warn for predators. How do you recognize these calls when you hear them in your garden or outside? Besides using calls, songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds also sing songs with a specific structure and function, which they learn from their parents. What are the similarities between birdsong and human language? Next, we will discuss language research with other animals than apes: Can dolphins and sealions carry out commands that are given by humans in the form of signs? Can parrots communicate with humans by speaking human words? And what do dogs and other domesticated animals understand of our communication, like pointing and gaze direction? Recent studies have shown that some dogs can understand hundreds of human words for all kinds of objects. Finally, we will discuss several theories about the evolution of human language.

After this course you will have a fresh, new look on the ways in which animals communicate and you will have knowledge regarding the question in what way we can talk about language in other animals. Besides surprising information about the animals around us you will also get an impression of the controversies in this field of study.

For whom? The course is meant for people who work with animals professionally, for students, and for anyone interested in animals and eager to broaden their knowledge about them. A specific former education is not required. The course will be given in the Dutch language, but a passive knowledge of English is convenient, given that some of the films that I will show are not subtitled.

Practical information. The course will be given on three Saturdays in November: November 2, 9 and 16. Each day will start at 11 o’clock in the morning and will end at half past 5 in the afternoon. It is recommended that one takes the whole course of three days, but one can also register for 1 or 2 days of the course. The registration fee is 160 euros for the whole course (students with student ID card 100 euros), or 60 euros (40 euros for students) for each separate day. The price includes a (vegan) lunch and coffee and tea.

LocationMadame de Pompadour, Langsom 28 in Amsterdam. This location is very well accessible both by car (there is even free parking!) and by public transport.

You can register by sending a message to estebanyes@gmail.com or by filling out the form below: 

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Filed under Animal Communication, Language research with animals

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.


  • 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.


Filed under Animal Communication, Lectures and courses