University of Florida Bird Language Course


Course Overview

Many animals are dependent on other species to alert them to potential dangers that lurk nearby. This field study course, open both to the general public and UF students, will examine how birds and mammals pay close attention to the communication of certain avian species, in particular titmice and chickadees who are often considered the ‘sentries’ of the forest.  Each day will be composed of bird language observations in the field, followed by debriefing exercises and other naturalist activities such as wildlife tracking.  Participants will be taught how to distinguish between baseline bird behaviors and various alarms.

Course Details


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Course Name:                  

Bird Language for Naturalists


Course Dates:                   

May 7-11, 2018 



5 Days

Course Credits:

UF students, 2 Credit Hours (letter grade)

Course Number:  WEC 6934 / WIS 4934

Non‐UF students, CEU’s available


Experience & Activity Level:            

Previous birding experience

helpful but not required.  


Accommodation  Style:

Tent camping ($5 per night)

Bunkhouses (see here for reservations,

additional charges apply)



$995 per person (non UF student)

$15 for CEU's



Ordway Swisher Biological Station,

Melrose, Florida

Course Instructors

Dr. Katie Sieving - Avian Ecologist & Professor, University of Florida.  

Lee Burton - Bird Language Leaders Instructor, Cybertracker Conservation certified wildlife tracker, Master Naturalist 


Birds are among the most observable of organisms and possess a universal appeal to bring people from all walks of life together for an unforgettable nature-science immersion experience.  While wildlife science is increasingly reliant on knowledge gained from technology via instrument readings or measurements in the lab, nothing can replace observation in the field to provide context to scientific analysis and help piece the whole puzzle together.  Perhaps more importantly, it gives personal enjoyment to one’s work and yields insight into the importance of biological research, as well as invariably leading individuals to a deeper connection to, and appreciation for the natural world.


Led by a University of Florida ornithologist and a bird language instructor, this course will give participants five full days at a biological station to conduct bird language and other naturalist studies.  Attendees will get to experience first hand the web of inter-species communications and how that affects animal behavior in all four dimensions (3D space and time). By the end of the course, students will be able to understand and embody on a rudimentary level what it would actually be like to be a song bird, and the myriad of life-threatening challenges that they face on a daily basis (see how past students have described the course...scroll to bottom).       

The foundation of the course will be based on ‘The Five Voices,’ which categorizes song bird vocalizations into four baseline categories (songs, contact calls, territorial aggression, juvenile begging) plus alarm behavior.  Every day participants will go out into the field to record observations of these behaviors, and then meet with instructors afterward to synthesize all data gathered via mapping exercises intended to weave a coherent ‘story’ about what transpired during the observation period. Other naturalist activities like wildlife tracking will be undertaken to teach participants how to detect any ground animal movements that may have occurred during the period.

Upon completion, students who are registered at the University of Florida will receive 2 credit hours.   Regardless of their academic status, all participants will walk away with the following benefits:

1) ability to record data using modern (app-driven, field-ready) data-curation methods.

2) sharpening of their full range of sensory abilities to obtain accurate observational data on species ID and behaviors.

3) utilization of group collection methods (i.e. other peoples' sensory perceptions) to magnify the scope, detail and accuracy of observational learning to many times what one person can obtain.

4) knowledge of ancient peoples' use of bird language (vocal and behavioral cues) about animals' locations, activities and identities.

5) ability to collaborate in designing citizen science studies (using the scientific method) that could be done by people trained in bird language skills.

6) understanding of how academic students and lay-persons/naturalists can learn to rely on each other in ways that improve data-driven societal decision-making about resource management.


* Students who are taking the course for credit will be required upon completion to write one or more blog posts on their experiences in the class to be published on the University of Florida IFAS Wildlife Blog,