I Am Going to Eat You Up!” Calls for Prey
Rocky sits on the windowsill in the kitchen, looks out the window and makes a sound that one does not necessarily associate with a cat: meh, meh, meh…eh, eh…eh, eh eow… When I go to him, I see that there is a large gull sitting on the roof of the neighbor’s house. Rocky’s tail wags in large movements. Is he excited? Nervous? Meh, meh, meh. Eh, meow, he goes on, staring at the gull hypnotically. The gull does not pay him any attention at all, and eventually it just takes off into the sky. “Good Rocky, good boy,” I praise him. “You’ve chased off another gull.” Today, I know a lot more about the reasons for these strange cat sounds, but the first time that I heard them—I think it was from Vincent—I had to laugh.
Description of the Sound
Chattering and chirping are fairly uncommon sounds that can be easily misunderstood by cat owners. Many of our cats like to sit on the windowsill and look outside. Then they discover a bird in a tree, on a roof or on the street, and start to chirp and to chatter. Some cats utter the same sounds outside in the garden, too, if they discover prey that is too far away, an insect or a bird, for example. Some wild cats may demonstrate the same behavior when their preferred prey (birds, rodents or insects) are nearby. These sounds could be part of the hunting instinct, as the cat is trying to imitate the sound made by the prey. Perhaps they want to lull the prey into a sense of security, so that they can stay hidden as long as possible.
As there are a great number of different variations, it is not necessarily straightforward to categorize the variety of these sounds. One could divide them into the following categories, bearing in mind that variations and even subcategories are possible: chattering (voiceless) and chirping (voiced). Which of the following sounds or variations of sounds have you heard your cat saying?
Chattering is generally a number of voiceless, very rapid, short, clipped sounds that are uttered in stuttering or clicking sequences. They are produced with a rapidly juddering jaw. They often sound like teeth chattering with a k consonant, and can be written in the phonetic alphabet as [k k k k k k] or [k̟= k̟= k̟= k̟= k̟= k̟= ]. The small “+” under the k means that it is pronounced farther forward in the mouth (in the middle of the mouth), and the “=” means that it is an unaspirated k, that is to say, no more air is expelled after the k.
It has been suggested that this sound is connected to the capturing of prey. A cat who sees an unreachable bird chatters and imitates a killing bite in a stereotypical way. The action could serve as a means of stress relief. Some cats also chatter as a means of protest, for example when they feel they have been mistreated by their humans or when they are annoyed.
Chirping consists of short, voiced sounds that sound almost like meh or eh, and resemble the chirping of birds or the peeping of rodents. Some also hear the ringing of a telephone in the sound. The tone (intonation, melody) often falls at the end of the sound. The beginning of the sound is often hard, with a glottal stop [ʔ], and the vowels are frequently e as in “men” and a as in “cat,” or [ʔə] in phonetic notation. These sounds are often repeated in sequences like meh, meh, meh. Chirping can sometimes be a little hoarse, raspy or raw and sound similar to a hoarse meow or snarl. Besides being a hunting instinct, chirping can also occur in other situations, for example when a cat hears a lamp make a crackling sound after it has been turned off, or sees people throw small objects through the air, as my husband and I do when we throw darts at a dartboard.
In addition, there are variations of chirping that have somewhat different phonetic characteristics and might therefore be assigned to potential subcategories.
Soft tweeting is a mild form of chirping. There is no hard beginning (no glottal stop [ʔ]); instead it sometimes begins with a u or a [w] and the vowels vary, though i, ae and u, such as in [wi] or [ɦɛu], are typical. Tweedling or warbling is a prolonged chirp or tweet. It is often combined with voice modulations such as tremolo or quavering and has a much more varied melody. Two or more syllables are often audible, such as in [ʔəɛəɥə]. Here, too, combinations with the aforementioned sounds have been observed.
My cats are very different when it comes to this category of sound. Donna mostly produces combinations of chirping and chattering when she sees a bird. She seems to prefer large birds such as gulls, crows and magpies—the larger the bird, the louder and longer her sequences of chattering and chirping.
Turbo chatters only occasionally, but he chirps all the more—and not only at birds and insects. When my husband and I play darts in our little bar corner, there are small interesting objects flying through the air and Turbo is of the opinion that they might be something to hunt. And that is worth a chirp as far as he is concerned. To the eyes of cats, darts have a striking resemblance to the small birds that they know from the garden. Of course, we throw only darts that have soft tips and we take care that none of our cats cross in front of us while we are playing. Turbo does not seem to be ready to acknowledge that the flying objects are neither tasty treats nor birds and chirps at them every time our electric dartboard is in use. He runs to us very quickly and says [ʔɛ ʔə], [ʔæ ʔa ʔə], which we take to mean “What? You started without me? You know that I want to watch. And where is my treat?” During the game he takes up residence on our bar and gives a chirping commentary to every throw.
Rocky chirps and chatters in combination, and he is the only one of my cats who also often tweets or tweedles. He can sit for a long time observing a bird while tweeting and tweedling softly to himself, with a rising and falling melody. He often does it when he sits on the windowsill and discovers a bird outside.
Maybe it is more of an individual variation, but I have introduced tweeting and tweedling as two further subcategories in this book so as to make the spectrum of these sounds somewhat wider and to help you describe the sounds your own cat makes with phonetic terminology.
Some cats chatter but do not chirp, others can chirp but not chatter and some do neither. For example, Vimsan almost never chatters. I do not know why. Maybe she caught so many birds before she came to us that it does not excite her so much when she sees a small bird through the window. She sometimes likes to climb trees on the hunt for magpies when they have teased and cursed her, but she does not make a peep in the process.
Corresponding Body Language
Cats usually sit or stand when they chirp or chatter. The sounds are often accompanied by a tail whipping back and forth impatiently. That shows how excited, tense and concentrated the animal is.
Sometimes cats try to catch their prey even though it is on the other side of the window. While chirping and chattering they snap their teeth, judder their jaws, and thus open and close their mouths in a quick repetitive manner. Some have claimed that cats do the same when they have caught a small animal and want to eat it (with fur and bones and such), juddering their jaws in the same way so as to protect their throats from sharp bones. Others surmise that cats are practicing the killing bite they will deal to their prey when they chatter their teeth and judder their jaws. Cats can also chatter when they are lying down and when they sleep. Turbo probably sometimes dreams of birds or darts and chirps and chatters softly when he is sleeping in his basket.
Phonetic Categorization (Sound Type, Melody)
I have observed tweeting and tweedling only in my own cats, as I have already said, and have rarely heard it in others. There are certainly other variations, perhaps some of them are present only in your cats, so of course I cannot account for them in my description. The diversity and the possibility for variation in cat sounds are almost endless. This is one of the reasons for my fascination with the sounds of cats.
Chattering and most variations on chirping are produced with a mouth held tensely open. In contrast, the softer subcategories of chirping—tweeting and tweedling—are usually expressed with an opening, closing or opening-closing mouth.
Phonetic Description and Transcription
Chattering sounds are often produced using a series of identical consonants and sound almost like glottal stops [ʔ ʔ ʔ ʔ] or like clattering k’s produced at the front of the mouth [k k k k k] or like [k̟= k̟= k̟= k̟= k̟= k̟= ]. The small plus under the k means that it is pronounced farther forward in the mouth (in the middle of the mouth), and the “=” means that it is an unaspirated sound, so that no air is expelled after the k.
Chirping often consists of [ʔ] or [k̟=] and a vowel such as e, ae or a, such as [ʔə] or [k̟=e]. Chirping usually occurs in longer sequences, such as [ʔɛʔɛʔɛ].
Tweeting and tweedling both occur without an initial consonant and begin with a soft u [w] or h instead, such as [wi] or [ɦɛu]. Longer tweedling is often pronounced without [ʔ] or [k̟=] and consists of multiple syllables that often produce a fairly complicated melody: [wəɛəɥə].
TIP: The phonetic symbols are described in Tables 3, 4 and 5.
Voice and Melody
Chattering is mostly voiceless, whereas chirping is voiced. The short chirping sounds are usually either monotone or have a melody that declines slightly. Tweeting and tweedling in contrast can have more variation in their melodies. Tweedling consists of a combination of sounds with numerous rises and falls in the melody.