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The language of birds: What you can learn by listening carefully

The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.

BY: Annie DuPre, FGASA NQF2 and Back-up Trails Guide

South Africa showcases an overwhelming diversity of birds – over 850 bird species have been recorded in the country. The Lowveld region (home to the Bushwise campus) boasts some of the country’s most incredible bird diversity.

Bird identification – through both sight and sound – is part of professional field guide training. Birds can teach us so much about our surroundings, if we just pay attention!

The dawn chorus

White fronted bee eaters sitting on a tree.

Photo by: Annie DuPre

From the tiniest grey penduline-tit, to the massive southern ostrich, it’s easy to understand why South Africa is a bird-lover’s paradise. When you wake up in camp, the first thing you’re likely to hear (unless there are lions or elephants nearby), are the morning calls of local birds. This is referred to as the “dawn chorus”.

The dawn chorus can bring a meditative moment to your time in the bush. Close your eyes and see how many you can identify by their calls. If you’re on a game drive, bush walk, or in camp with guests, have them join you in this exercise.

As a field guide, talking to guests about the different birds you’re hearing is a great way to showcase your knowledge beyond the typical game drive talk. Some guests may even be avid birders (or twitchers, as they sometimes call themselves), so this could be the highlight of their trip.

One interpretation of the dawn chorus is that this is an opportunity for birds to announce their territory to others, attract mates, or defend their chicks. Singing loudly takes a lot of energy, so it would make sense that the strongest birds can also sing the loudest.

But birds are saying much more about what’s going on in the bush when they sing.

What bird calls tell us

It's important as a field guide to listen to bird calls.

Bird calls aren’t just beautiful sounds. Sometimes, by listening carefully to their calls, you might hear a bird alarming (during your training, you’ll learn that alarm calls are very different to other types of calls). This may be a sign of a predator nearby, might indicate the presence of another species, or could tell you something else entirely. Here are a few examples:

  1. Birds of prey: Raptors, such as tawny eagles or bateleurs, are often the first to arrive on the scene if there’s a kill nearby. These species can even be used to locate leopard kills, so if you see both a tawny and a bateleur in the same tree, or near to one another, have a good look in all the nearby trees for cats! Vultures may also get to the scene quickly. White-backed vultures, for example, can smell a carcass from up to six kilometres away. 

  2. Circling vultures: Vultures flying in circles in a group (known as a kettle of vultures) use thermals (pockets of hot air rising from the ground) to gain lift. This allows them to rise in the air, meaning they can travel further without having to expend much energy. If you see vultures diving down to the ground, it may be a sign of a carcass and therefore a predator. Diving vultures are always worth checking out!

Bateleurs are normally the first to arrive if there is a kill nearby.

Photo by: Annie DuPre

  1. Grey go-away birds: As common as grey go-away birds are in urban and suburban areas, people often ignore their crying call. However, if you are in the bush and one or more grey go-away birds are alarm calling, it’s a good indication that a spotted or Verreaux’s eagle-owl is somewhere nearby. Follow their calls and look closely at trees nearby – you might find the culprit.

  2. Oxpeckers: Red- and yellow-billed oxpeckers have very recognisable calls. Their role is to clean parasites off ungulates, so when you hear an oxpecker, it’s important to pause and see what animal they’re with. This could be anything from warthogs to rhinos. Recognising the oxpecker call is especially important for trail guides, as you may hear evidence of dangerous game before you see them. In fact, it’s recommended that guides set the sound of oxpeckers as their alarm calls on their phones. Then, whenever you hear an oxpecker, you’re immediately on alert!

  3. Yellow-billed oxpecker: This species is uncommon and listed as Vulnerable in South Africa, and most commonly found with herds of buffalo. Red-billed oxpeckers are more common around camp and throughout the Greater Kruger National Park, while you need to travel a bit further north to find yellow-billed oxpeckers

An Oxpecker on a giraffe's back.

Photo by: Annie DuPre

  1. Greater honeyguide: One of many people’s personal favourites, and arguably one of the most interesting human-animal relationships to discuss with guests, is the role of the greater honeyguide. This bird’s “Victor! Victor!” call has alerted people to the presence of bees, and thus honey, for generations. The bird’s calls help people locate beehives hidden in tree hollows. And after the honey has been retrieved, the bird gets the delicious larvae-stuffed comb left behind. As a guide, you may learn of trees in your guiding area where evidence of this activity is still present – this makes for a really interesting discussion with your guests. Sadly, this mutually-beneficial relationship is falling away, as fewer and fewer interactions have been recorded. 

It’s crucial to be on alert as a guide, always listening for the alarm calls of birds and other animals. There are some birds in the bush that will alarm at the smallest of worries (francolins and spurfowls are notorious for this). However, if you’re busy following the tracks of a leopard and you hear one of these birds alarming ahead of you, then it’s probably a good indication that a big cat is nearby.

A good guide will always take everything into consideration, using their senses to try and interpret what the bush is telling us. So, while birds may be excellent indicators of other species, they can also tell us much more.

Two blue waxbill birds.

Seasonal soundtracks

Of the 850-plus bird species found in South Africa, about 100 are migratory (meaning they spend part of the year outside of the country). This means that you’ll hear different calls depending on the time of year, and guides often mark the change in season with the arrival of certain species.

The summer Lowveld soundtrack has begun in earnest by mid-November, bringing with it the sounds of the woodland kingfisher, red-chested cuckoo, gorgeous bush-shrike, African paradise flycatcher, Diedrick’s cuckoo, green-backed camaroptera, pin-tailed whydah and more.

Winter in the Lowveld brings to the forefront the black-headed oriole, black-collared barbet, collared and white-bellied sunbirds, purple-crested turaco, kurrichane thrush, chinspot batis and brown-headed parrot, among others.

Endemic species

Bushwise students identifying the birds in the tree.

A point of pride in South Africa is the number of rare and endemic (meaning only found there) bird species that the country hosts. There are 69 endemic and near-endemic bird species in South Africa, including many that are endangered, threatened, and vulnerable. Since species endemism is a strong indicator of biodiversity, South Africans are right to be proud of this number!

Guests may be travelling to a specific area just to see a “lifer”, or a bird they’ve never seen before and may only get to see it once. So it’s important that you’re able to help identify rare bird species (even if you haven’t actually seen them yet yourself). 

Bird identification for field guides

As a Bushwise student, you will learn how to identify birds by sight and sound.

When taking part in one of the Bushwise Field Guide courses, you’ll learn how to identify dozens of birds by sight and sound. This isn’t just a fun trick to impress your guests, it’s also important when interpreting the bush around you and learning to recognise warning signs. 

Bird calls and identification is just one of many modules that field guides must study to provide their guests with memorable experiences. 

To learn more about how you too can become an accomplished field guide, check out the courses offered by Bushwise!

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