Thursday, 28 November 2013

Blackbird alarm calls

For a long time, I have been fascinated with the rich vocal repertoire of Blackbirds. I have recorded their alarm calls and what do they appear to react to, and did some research to find out what was known about them. Here I have compiled what I have found so far in my attempt to understand 'blackbirdese'. I have excluded male song and chick and fledgling begging calls from the post. Given how difficult is to transcribe bird sounds, I have illustrated each call with embedded sonograms and clips from the website Xeno-canto, which contains a fantastic collection of bird calls from around the world, published under Creative Commons licences.
Chink, chink, chink, chink, chink!'
A mobbing call given to owls, kestrel, magpie, carrion crow (and ornithologists checking nests!) which may be followed by attacks. The blackbird is exposed, agitated, flicks tail and wings - which are kept dangling -, from an obvious post (top shot and above) facing the potential predator, very nervous sounding and calling repeatedly and monotonously for a long time. It indicates a moderately aggressive tendency with a low escape tendency, although somewhat inhibited from attacking. Mobbing might be a way of cultural transmission of enemy recognition. Inexperience birds exposed to conspecifics mobbing a predator will join in the mobbing and mob the predator themselves in the future.

Alarm call before roosting or 'chinking'
Territory holding males give a persistent 'chink-chink' calls in the evening, possibly to deter other Blackbirds from roosting in its territory. Other territory holders might join in 'chinking'. This is interesting as it is very similar if not identical to the mobbing call. Is this a dishonest signal 'don't roost here, there are predators around'? or it is an assertion of territorial ownership with a general meaning 'move on'?

The bird sits tense, still, with feathers flat on the body and head. In response to crow and sparrowhawk, whether they are flying or just nearby. Slow, well spaced and high-pitched with open beak (above). Many other birds have a similar thin, high pitched alarm call for threats from aerial predators since the features of this sound makes the calling bird harder to locate, therefore the bird calling does not endangering itself. It has also been called 'hawk alarm', but it is also uttered in response to crows flying overhead or when the nest is threatened. Nestlings react to this call by becoming quiet and still. In experiments using magpie dummies, the parents uttered this call when the dummy was 6-7 m from the nest, while they used the mobbing call when the dummy was very close to the nest. Interestingly, there appear to be differences between urban and rural blackbirds use of this call, as D.W. Snow reported that woodland birds use this call also to humans (the one in the photo above is a woodland bird, so maybe was reacting to our presence), and then it indicates that the nest is very close.

Alarm rattle
A loud, sudden and accelerating outburst, ending on a noisy scream, with the bird flying away. Alarm call when the bird is suddenly startled, also during fights. May starts when the bird is perched but finished in flight. If this call has the same effect on a predator as if an observer disturbs a blackbird at close quarters - it has made me jump more than once - it might give the calling bird a few moments advantage to flee from danger.

Also called 'trill' call. A flight or fight intention call. Perched and in flight. It can serve as an appeasement call by a subordinate bird indicating its intention to flee.

Soft call
Also known as 'pok' or 'pook' call, sounds like a soft bark, to me more like 'wow'. Usually from a tree, still or in flight. It is an alarm call to indicate the presence of ground predators, which in gardens usually means the presence of a cat, or a human approaching young or the nest. Fledglings respond to this call immediately by keeping silent and still and looking around, and especially below them. D.W. Snow used a playback of this call to a few day old nestlings reared by him and they acted in the same way.

Low pitched, uttered with the beak closed. Anxiety call, mild alarm. Sometimes on its own, sometimes accelerating to the full-swing alarm call in flight. Flicks tail, horizontal body. To people, dogs, cats, etc.  Females use it when disturbed while looking for nest site or nest building. Also used when the bird is foraging in an unfamiliar situation where the bird feels insecure.

Chook, chook, chink, chink, chink
A variant in which the chook combines with chinking as the bird becomes more aggressive or excited.

More information

Snow, D. W. (1988). A study of blackbirds. British Museum, Natural History.

Kryštofková, M., Haas, M., & Exnerová, A. (2011). Nest defense in blackbirds Turdus merula: effect of predator distance and parental sex. Acta Ornithologica46(1), 55-63.


  1. What a fascinating post. I have put a link to it on my blog.

  2. ¡Hola, África!
    Me encanta tu blog; lo sigo con verdadera afición e interés. Tus entradas son muy informativas, entretenidas, y, sobre todo, llenas de cariño por los "bichos". Es una delicia leerlas.
    Un saludo desde España.

  3. Muchisimas gracias Tinúviel por tu comentario, me alegro que te guste seguir el blog.

  4. Thank you Ralph, much appreciated. Still feel we have so much to learn on this common bird.

  5. I've noticed the differences between Iberian and British Blackbirds' calls. Try finding a Blackbird when you go to Spain, and compare. It surprised me the first time I heard an English Blackbird, being used to the Spanish ones.

    Good post!

  6. Gui, I agree, that's why I chose recordings only from UK. There are many Spanish recordings, it would be interesting to compare.

  7. Interesting, I came to this page looking for explanation of the sounds made by the blackbirds behind our house. Our blackbirds must be very agitated as they spend most of the day continuously making the "Chink chink chink" and "Seeeee!" sounds. I'm sure they have a nest nearby but I wish they would calm down a bit. Especially the loud "Seeee!" continuing for hours on end is racking my nerves and eardrums!

    1. I think they must be reacting to some crows that live in the area as well, though the crows seem entirely unimpressed by the blackbirds' alarm calls.

    2. Hi Michiel, thank you for commenting. You are right, loitering crows near blackbird nests can have this effect. The crows may not react but it is likely the blackbird nestlings or fledglings will behave accordingly and keep a low profile. They are at a vulnarable stage, but also at a crucial stage when they learn to associate their parents alarm calls with particular predators. Lets hope your young blackbirds disperse soon and the parents return to their not so panicky normal state

  8. Hi Africa

    This is a fascinating article, As a wildlife tracker i am very interested in finding more about the meaning of alarms in birds. Do you by any chance have any links to further information?

    1. Hi John, thank you for your comment. Unfortunately I don't have any further information and I would be very interested if you find any.

  9. Thanks Africa and sorry for the delay in replying. I will let you know if I come across anything else

  10. Their distress call is sometimes made by the male bird only this is meant to encourage the hen to feed chicks