Some birds speak our language, but what most of us hear is bird song. Can we figure out what they’re saying (singing) to each other?

To many people, bird song can herald the coming of spring, reveal what kind of bird is perched nearby or be merely an unwelcome early morning intrusion. But to researcher Sandra Vehrencamp, bird song is a code which can tell us what birds are thinking.

Birds use song systems to communicate about mating and reproduction, territorial boundaries, age and even overall health. Vehrencamp studies birds from Costa Rica, Colombia and Bonaire to decode which elements convey such essential information.

She records bird songs and then plays them back to birds of the same species to decipher strategies that various species use to attract mates and resolve territorial disputes. She says, “You kind of feel like you’re talking to the bird.”

She found that song sparrows in southern California can interpret each other’s birdsong as “fighting words,” because they often resolve a conflict by singing the same type of song back to one another.

“They get really mad,” Vehrencamp says. “They treat [the] playback like it’s another bird and will sometimes come right up to the speaker.”

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Will 2009 be the year when we finally listen to the birds?and to people who have come back from the dead and had other interesting experiences? There’s a lot to learn, if we’ll only listen.

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