The bottom line lesson for conversing with birds–and dogs also, I suspect–is to repeat simple word phrases in context, add a simple motion with arms or hands, and note any response.
An example from the Hen House—at dusk, I enter the pen saying “Time to go sleeping,” then I say it again with an arm motion toward the Hen House or nest box, wherever those particular birds usually sleep.
In winter the phrase is, “It’s cold. Everybody to the Hen House.” The birds don’t hesitate, for they remember how nice and cozy it was last winter. The small ducks actually head for their gate at dusk when it’s cold, and my opening their gate confirms that they should head around the corner to the Hen House.
On nice mornings, I open the back door to the little ducks pen so they can go swimming in the stock tank. My hand at their nest door ushers them the right direction with the words, “You may go swimming today.” They don’t head that direction when I say, “No swimming today,” and rudely turn my back. When they have had their swim and need to march back down the hill to their pen, I need only say “Time to go back to the pen,” with two hands scooping forward.
They get the message and quickly leave the water or their browsing on greens and head for the pathbdown the hill, Ms. Ritz followed by Kiebler. He is silent but she has a routine marching song, a high-pitched “aick” pause “aick” pause aick aick aick aick aick” all the way down to their pen’s back door. Her complaint (?) pattern is always the same, two “aicks,” then five, with an occasional sixth “aick” thrown in as a grace note.
Meanwhile, the geese watch us going past and demand to be let out into the yard with the loudest persistent honk they can muster. Lucy’s is lower in pitch and irritation level, but I suspect Bobbi (the Chinese swan goose) has encouraged her. She used to have better manners, having been raised by 4-H girls. Lucy and Bobbi both will greet me with a quiet “honk honk” if I pass them in the yard. Same quiet response if I say hello from and open window. However, if I kneel down to prune a bush outside, they both come at me with loud inquisitive “HONK HONK HONKs….” on and on, as if I had suddenly turned into something threatening.
Temple Grandin got it right about birds having WYSIWYG brains. What they see, literally, is what they believe is real, I believe. They knew something was very wrong when turkey died, and so did Ms. Khaki, when her two-day-old chick died. They told me all about it with anxious high-pitch complaints I couldn’t begin to imitate in English letters.
So the mystery continues—we can make some observations, stay tuned into pitch and frequency and body language—but we can’t ever fully understand the mind of someone else, especially when they wear feathers and express some part of a proud dinosaur heritage that is far more ancient than ours.