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Animal Dictionary

Photo Courtesy of Ann Cook

Photo by Ann Cook

When we humans hear an unfamiliar word, we can use the word's beginning sounds or spelling to look it up in a dictionary and learn what it means. But how can we find out what a bird call means? Journey North comes to the rescue with a unique Animal Dictionary!

Our animal dictionary isn't quite the same as a human dictionary for many reasons. Animals may live on the same planet with us -- even in our own backyards -- but they experience life with different visual and hearing skills. Some have the ability to sense the earth's magnetic poles and changes in barometric pressure, and can process their sensations faster than we. The experiences and perceptions we humans communicate about are so different from the experiences and perceptions of animals that if animals DID have words, we still couldn't directly translate their words into our own. The whistles, buzzes, chirps, and other sounds produced by birds, for example, which have a syrinx, or song box, can't be described with letters -- unlike the sounds we produce with our larynx, or voice box. Unfortunately, sounds can't be alphabetized unless they correspond to letters. And although animals certainly communicate through their vocalizations, we can't directly translate from animal language into English because our words have been developed for humans to communicate our human experiences.

Using Journey North's bird dictionary will help you do many things. You will be able to:

  • hear different sounds that some species make;
  • see how some English-speaking ornithologists put words to an animal sound to remember the call;
  • see how each sound looks on a spectrograph and a waveform graph; and
  • learn what context each sound is given in--that is, what is happening in the animal's physiological, physical and social environment when it makes each sound, to the best of our understanding right now.

Photo Courtesy of Ann Cook

Photo by Ann Cook

Most of the sounds used in our Animal Dictionary were recorded and provided by Lang Elliott, with a few additional contributions by Dave Gammon of Colorado State University. Students and teachers interested in learning how to read and understand spectrographs and waveforms will find help (and an activity-quiz) in another lesson designed to do that: Picturing Sound.

To learn how ornithologists record and figure out the meaning of bird sounds, seeStudying Animal Sounds

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