If you've ever watched a cat sit in the window and chatter at birds, you know he seems to be excited by those fine-feathered creatures. And no wonder; birds are a cat's natural prey. But the difference in the sounds birds make -- whether natural or recorded -- may make a slight difference in the way felines respond.
No, cat's can't talk the way humans do. But they can communicate through vocalization and body language (or nonverbal communication). Cats "speak" in a variety of ways, including happy purrs and agitated growls or hissing. When they see birds through a window, they often make a chirping or chattering noise and may even lash their tails, demonstrating anger or, more likely, excitement or anticipation. That behavior is indicative of the hunting nature of cats.
A highly aroused cat will open his mouth, lower his jaw, and quiver as he chatters or cackles. This lip-smacking or teeth-chattering is instinctive and may indicate that he is frustrated -- he wants that bird! Feline behavior experts also suggest that chattering is similar to the sound cats make as they deliver a special, quick neck bite when killing a bird or small rodent. Window-cackling cats may actually be practicing their hunting skills from afar.
While your cat may spot a small rodent or other creature from his window perch, he's more likely to respond to birds due to their sudden movements as they flit and fly around, as well as to their various coloration (although cats are not color-blind, they can only see some color at one time). Because of their acute hearing, cats respond to birds' high-pitched chipping noises.
Recorded Bird Sounds
In 2002, scientists from Jerusalem examined how feline neurons respond to varying bird sounds in the auditory cortex. They exposed cats to three different bird sounds; a chirp including its natural background acoustics, the same chirp "cleaned" of accompanying background noise, and an artificial chirp. The result was that while cats responded to all three sounds, neither the cleaned nor artificial chirps could elicit the same kind of response as the natural chirp. The real deal was better!
Safe Bird Watching
Allowing cats to watch and cackle at birds is an excellent way to let them "be cats" and have fun. But because they're natural predators (60 to 70% of a cat’s prey is small mammals, 20 to 30% birds, and 10% other animals, including reptiles, amphibians, and insects) keep them indoors so they don't impact local wildlife. In the winter, you can try bird song recordings--just don't expect the same response, if any.
Debra Levy has been writing for more than 30 years. She has had fiction and nonfiction published in various literary journals. Levy holds an M.A. in English from Indiana University and an M.F.A. in creative writing/fiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars.