Bird watching is big business. South Africa ranks as one of the top birding destinations in the world. A 1997 study showed 20,000 tourists had spent approximately $26 million on bird safaris in South Africa alone. The Avitourism industry has grown rapidly in the last two decades. Birdlife South Africa has a membership of over 8000 dedicated members. Modern day ornithologists study bird behaviour intensively, including their common calls, migratory routes, nesting and physiology.

But it is their language we still don’t fully understand..

For centuries birds’ alarm calls have been a vital source of information for indigenous trackers as they hunted and gathered food in the bush. A bird will make a different call if it encounters a potential threat, such as a leopard, eagle, snake or human. This is called an alarm or distress call. The purpose of the call is to alert other birds of the threat as well as to indicate to the predator that the surprise element is gone. Essentially it’s saying, “don’t try, I see you!” What is interesting is that the majority of these calls are not recorded or published in any scientific research paper, according to Professor Derek Engelbrecht of the University of Limpopo.

Over the past 17 years working with Renias Mhlongo, I have always been fascinated by the accuracy and extent of his knowledge of bird calls, particularly the alarm calls, whilst following animal trails on foot. With the aim of understanding bird language better, Tracker Academy has joined forces with Professor Engelbrecht to formally record bird alarm calls. Last week we spent five days following leopards, lions and eagles in the effort to record any bird which alarmed at these predators. By no means is the project over, we still need to record many examples of different bird species alarming at different predators in different contexts. But it’s a start, and we are very excited to see the results. If we can teach our students to understand the alarm calls, it will give them something extra in their bag of tracking skills.

Sometimes Renias does not even see the animal tracks on the ground, but because he understands bird language he is able to predict where the animal is moving.

Tracker Academy has joined forces with Prof Engelbrecht of the University of Limpopo to record bird alarm calls. There is currently little or no published information on alarm calls made by birds when they encounter predators such as leopard, eagles and snakes.


Renais Mhlongo of Tracker Academy and Professor Derek Engelbrecht of the University of Limpopo

Video to watch:

Team Isuzu recently visited Londolozi and filmed a short clip on the remarkable friendship between Alex and Renias. Wacth the video clip below. 

Written by: Alex Van Den Heever. 

Photographs courtesy of: The Tracker Academy 

Filed under Tracking Wildlife

About the Author

Alex Van Den Heever


Alex spent his formative years growing up on a cattle farm in the Western Cape, South Africa. After completing his studies in Marketing and Business Management, he joined world-renowned Londolozi game reserve in 1995 as a game ranger. Alex’s greatest fascination during his ...

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on A New Study: Recording Bird Alarm Calls

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marinda drake

Wonderful that research is being done on the alarm calls of birds. Interesting blog.

Jill Grady

What an interesting blog! The African birds are so beautiful and incredible to watch, and it would certainly be interesting to study their alarm calls. Derek is very fortunate to get to work with and learn from the amazing Trackers in the Tracking Academy.

Kate Collins

Alex, I can’t wait to hear more about your progress. So interesting.

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