Why Cats "Chirp" At Birds, According to Science

Have you ever wondered why your cat makes strange, chattering noises at birds or small animals? Whether it’s pent-up frustration or excitement, these strange cat chatterings make it look almost like they’re trying to talk to the birds, in fact. And as it turns out, that might not be so farfetched a theory.

Even the most indoor of domesticated cats still have natural hunting instincts, and these instincts are often the driving force behind many cat behaviors, both positive and negative. Chattering at birds is just one of those behaviors driven by your cat’s natural instincts.

As it is with most things feline, trying to ascertain why cats do the things they do is a lot of guesswork. Many behaviorists theorize that the act of chattering at a bird is a cat expressing pent-up frustrations at not being able to catch prey beyond their reach. Others theorize that this strange series of chirps and clacks is a response to a surge in adrenaline when the feline spots its prey. Some behaviorists speculate that the movement of a cat’s chattering jaws simulates the “death bite” and cats are just preparing for the final moment.

But it begs the question - why would an ambush predator that relies on stealth make noise, potentially ruining their hunt? Thanks to a troop of pied tamarin monkeys and a hungry wildcat, we might be one step closer to figuring out why cats chatter at birds.

Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Fabio Rohe was studying a group of these pied tamarin monkeys in their natural habitat in the Amazon forests of Brazil. Rohe and his fellow scientists were recording monkey vocalizations when a wildcat prowled onto the scene. The wildcat began making calls identical to those of the monkeys, mimicking their vocalizations;  the first recorded instance of a wildcat in the Americas mimicking the sound of its prey.

The main theory? Cats may be lulling their prey into thinking they’re not a threat by imitating familiar sounds. “Don’t mind me! I’m just another monkey!” Or bird, for that matter! According to Rohes, the monkeys in his study were nearly fooled.




Rohe theorizes that all cats may be able to copy the vocalizations of their prey. And while cats are known for the physical abilities of their hunting, this vocal manipulation of prey species indicates a cunning which merits further study, he says.

Cat Condo - The Jungle Gym Cat Tree

What do you think? Does your cat “talk” to birds? Let us know in the comments!


  • John

    My mother (a biologist) told me when I was a kid (1960s) this was called “nittering” although I can’t seem to find any references agreeing with that. Maybe it’s just an out of use term, I don’t know.

  • George

    A previous comment claimed that this was the silliest explanation they had ever heard, because they say birds are able to distinguish between the individual calls of members of their own species, and therefore birds would be able to tell the difference between a cat’s chittering and another bird. I don’t think that person’s opinion is particularly well thought out, and just wanted to clarify a few things.

    Firstly, a cat’s chittering doesn’t necessarily need to actively attract birds to be an effective hunting attribute. In fact you could argue that birds need not even be the intended recipient of the mock-bird calls. Cats are ambush predators. They need to be able to get close to their prey without raising any ears, and small prey animals like birds and squirrels and such tend to be very skittish. However, they are trained by their environment to know that certain animals are not a threat. For example, a bird knows that a squirrel is not a predator, and a squirrel knows that small birds are not predators. Imagine you’re a cat living in the tall grass near a watering hole, and either target is available: A small bird and a small mammal like a squirrel or a chipmunk. Cats are quite stealthy, but not perfectly stealthy. The leaves still crunch under their feet, and the grass still makes rustling sounds as they brush against it. But, if the cat can produce a sound which at least approximates that of a non-threatening species, like a squirrel or bird-like sound, a certain percentage of the time when the prey animal hears that rustling sound as the cat approaches, then hears a subsequent chirping sound following it, it will cause them to let their guard down and assume the sound was that of a non threatening species. This obviously allows the cat to get closer before attempting their ambush, and should increase their odds of a successful hunt. In this scenario, it doesn’t matter whether a bird can distinguish between calls of individuals within their species. Birds need not even be the target of that chittering sound, it could be that they are just imitating a bird in order to fool another species which isn’t so familiar with bird calls, like small mammals.

    Secondly, mock bird calls absolutely do work. We see this in our own hunting techniques. Hunters use duck calls all the time for example, and even though ducks can distinguish between each other’s calls, the prospect of finding a mate is still enough to peak the curiosity of a single duck and draw them into the sound of an unfamiliar call. If it’s true for ducks, it’s pretty likely to be true for lots of other bird species too. Not guaranteed, but very likely considering their common evolutionary lineage. And again, the cat need not even be trying to imitate the call of any particular species. They could simply be imitating a generic bird like sound in order to convince any random bird that the rustle they near in the bushes is another bird, whether it be the same species or not.

    I don’t think the person who called this theory really thought out their opinion on it. This theory seems quite strong theoretically speaking, and I’m interested to see what if any observations can be made to confirm the purpose of this behavior in cats in the future.

  • Kaylynn

    My cat does it every morning for about 30 minutes to an hour.

  • Allaiyah Weyn

    My cats make the same noise at frogs, flies, & voles that they do to birds.

  • Edward Bear

    That’s the silliest explanation I have ever heard. Birds can distinguish individual calls for members of their own species. A cat cannot even make a sound that resembles most birdcalls. Maybe monkeys are not so discriminating. I have seen no explanation that explains why they do not make the chittering sound at mice or gophers. It’s a cat secret and we will probably never know for sure.

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