Was that a bee I just heard buzz? Or maybe the twitter of a sparrow? Or even the cry of a deer, there?

Well, as it happens, no it wasn't. There are two reasons for this - the first is that I live in a city, and keep all my doors and windows tightly shut in a largely successful bid to shun nature. The other reason is that bees don't buzz, sparrows don't twitter, and deer most certainly do not cry. They hum, chirp, and bell, respectively.

It came as something of a shock to learn that bees don't buzz, but apparently a large number of animal sounds can only be correctly identified by certain words (in English, at least - see noises animals make in different languages if that's your thing). The following is a list of the correct phrases to describe various animal calls (in 1894, at least - see disclaimer below)-

Apes gibber
Asses bray
Bears growl
Bees hum
Beetles drone
Bitterns boom
Blackbirds whistle
Bulls bellow
Calves bleat
Cats mew, purr, swear, and caterwaul
Chaffinches chirp, and pink
Chickens peep
Cocks crow
Cows moo and low
Crows caw
Cuckoos (wait for it) cuckoo
Deer bell
Dogs bark, bay, howl, and yelp
Doves coo
Ducks quack
Eagles scream
Falcons chant
Flies buzz (aha!)
Foxes bark and yelp
Frogs croak
Geese cackle and hiss
Grasshoppers chirp and pitter
Guineafowls cry "come back"
Guineapigs squeak
Hares squeak
Hawks scream
Hens cackle and cluck
Horses neigh and whinny
Hyenas laugh
Jays chatter
Kittens mew
Linnets chuckle
Lions roar and growl
Magpies chatter
Mice squeak and squeal
Monkeys chatter and gibber
Nightingales pipe, warble, and, erm, jug-jug
Owls hoot and screech
Oxen low and bellow
Parrots talk
Peacocks scream
Peewits peewit
Pigs grunt, squeak and squeal
Pigeons coo
Ravens croak
Rooks caw
Screech Owls screech or shriek
Sheep baa and bleat
Snakes hiss
Sparrows chirp
Stags bellow and call
Swallows twitter
Swans cry
Tigers roar and growl
Thrushes whistle
Turkeys gobble
Vultures scream
Wolves howl

- - - DISCLAIMER - - -
This list is not intended to be definitive. It does not claim to list the calls of all animals, and, as has been pointed out below, it isn't too tricky to find citations for countless descriptive phrases that are not included in this list.
The list is taken from Brewer's Dictionary Of Phrase and Fable, which was first published in 1870, and it is almost certain that the list above (like much of the rest of the current edition) has remained unaltered since Brewer's last major revision before his death, in 1894. It is included here for historical purposes as much as grammatical ones, and was never intended to be taken as gospel. I really should have made that clear earlier, I guess...

Sorry, did you say “a list of the correct phrases to describe various animal calls?” I’m going to have to disagree with that.

We’ll start from the very beginning. Bees don’t buzz, but they do hum? You might want to report this to the editors of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (Tenth Edition), who are under the mistaken impression that to buzz means “make a humming sound.”

Cats mew, purr, swear, and caterwaul, while kittens only mew, and neither one miaows? That’s mildly strange, since according to that same Oxford Dictionary, the word “miaow” (or “meow,” if you prefer) has been in use since the 17th Century. It also lists “mewl” as an alternative to “mew”, stating that “mewl” comes from Middle English - rather a long pedigree for a word that isn’t “the correct way to describe an animal call.” Meanwhile, every kitten I’ve ever seen informs me that purring is also quite acceptable kittenish speech. It’s worth noting that lions are also known to purr, as are cheetahs.

Deer don’t cry? That’s really, really strange. This very list tells us that stags bellow. Now, stags are male deer, and “bellow” usually means to call or shout loudly. And “cry”, according to Oxford, means not only “to shout or scream loudly”, but also “(of a bird or other animal) make a loud characteristic call”. In other words, all loud-voiced animals cry. Including stags, therefore including deer.

Geese cackle and hiss? Well, yes, sometimes they do, especially when they’re being tormented by visiting dictionary writers. But when you watch a gaggle of geese flying overhead, you aren’t very likely to hear them hissing. They will be honking. Also known as “gaggling,” according to Wester_1914 and Roget’s International Thesaurus (Fifth Edition).

Chickens PEEP? It’s becoming painfully obvious that the editors of the Brewer’s Dictionary don’t spend much time on farms. Last time I checked, chickens mostly clucked, leaving the peeping for their babies, commonly known as chicks. Again, Oxford supports my often suspect memory, defining cluck as “The characteristic short, guttural sound made by a hen.”

In general, this list, which purports to list technical names for animal sounds, tends to confuse the names with simple descriptions, undermining its own authority. It also assumes that most animals can make only one sound (this is most decidedly not the case for hawks or apes, which can do a hell of a lot more than merely “scream” and “gibber”). And in several cases, it’s quite simply wrong.

With all due respect to the Brewer’s Dictionary people, I would suggest that they spend a little time listening to animals if they want to compile the Compleat and Proper List of terms for animal noises. And that they get their facts straight.

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