For the Birds Radio Program: Cracking the Code of All Bird Language

Original Air Date: April 1, 1987 Rerun Dates: Aug. 20, 2012

On April 1, 1987, I broke the news that the Cornell Lavatory of Othinology had cracked the code of all bird language. This episode features cameos by Tim Winker and Dan Proctor, and marks the debut of Jim Baker, proprietor of Baker’s Blue Jay Barn (John Keenan).

Duration: 4′31″


April Fools!

(Recording of a Red-winged Blackbird)

What do bird vocalizations really mean? Thanks to the pioneering work of ethologists like Konrad Lorenz, scientists have long known that typical bird songs are territorial warnings against other male birds and enticements to females. But the actual language of bird song was not understood at all until just last week, when an incredible scientific breakthrough was made at the Cornell Lavatory of Orthinology. They developed a special process of playing tapes of bird calls at slow speed in reverse, interfacing with state-of-the-art software on a Vax computer, and have now cracked the code of all bird language.

Their most surprising discovery is that a bird’s territorial behavior is not as aggressive as they had once believed. For example, listen to this Red-winged Blackbird call, taped in early March after the bird returned from its southern wintering grounds.

(Recording of a Red-winged Blackbird)

The tape was processed by Lavatory scientists, and, to their amazement, it came out of the synthesizer like this:

(Simon and Garfunkel–“Gee but it’s great to be back home.”)

The House Wren’s familiar bubbly tune was processed next.

(Recording of a House Wren)

It turns out the House Wren’s drive to mate is far stronger than it’s territorial drive. On the synthesizer it sounds like this:

(Bob Dylan–“I Want You”)

Ring-billed Gulls, which are back in Duluth mooching at McDonald’s, sound like this to the unpracticed ear:

(Recording–Ring-billed Gull)

But now we know that this is what they’re really saying:

(Recording of Snoopy–“Suppertime”)

Mobbing calls of crows at an owl turn out to be standard throughout the continent. These angry caws came out of the synthesizer like this:

(“Here come the Jets like a bat out of hell”)

But it turns out that the territorial calls of crows are quite individual, and even show some regional dialects. Here’s a recording of a crow from Chicago:

(Recording of a crow)

After processing, that same Chicago crow’s call came out: (“I’m a crow–wanna make something of it? And I’m gonna knock your block off if you don’t keep your (blip) off my turf”)

Here is a recording of a Duluth crow:


After processing at the lavatory, it sounded like this: (“Ya, it’s just me again. You know, I’d sure appreciate it if you’d respect the boundaries of my territory. Thank you very much.”)

Yes, it’s true–Northland crows speak with a Norwegian accent.

By the way, “For the Birds” now has a corporate underwriter– Baker’s Blue Jay Barn:

(Blue Jay leading into John’s tape)

Baker’s Blue Jay Barn–catering to your Blue Jay needs since 1987.

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

This is Laura Erickson, and this April Fool’s Day program has been “For the Birds.”