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.