Cats make a variety of sounds. It's often not hard to interpret a cat's purring and meowing. But they also hiss, yowl, and growl. Perhaps the most little-understood sound cats make is the chattering sound, also called a chirp.
Cats make chirping or chattering sounds in a few different situations, such as when they see another cat or when they see an interesting animal such as a bird or squirrel that they can't get to. But what does the chattering sound mean? Is it a sound of frustration or some other cat behavior?
In the wild, cats are typically quiet creatures who hunt alone. Our house cats exhibit many of the same cat behaviors as their wild ancestors, so when they communicate with sound, they're actually trying to tell us something. The chattering sound is usually described as short vocalizations that are longer and higher-pitched than a purr and more prolonged than a chirp but not as long as a full meow.
Hunting and cat behavior
Cats are true carnivores, which means they must eat meat to survive. They can not get enough of the nutrients they need without meat in their diet. As such, all cats are natural hunters. They use their acute vision and hearing to locate their prey, and their sharp teeth and claws to subdue their prey once they find it.
A cat's prey species could be small to large animals, such as insects, small lizards or frogs, mice or voles, small rabbits, and, of course, birds. Hunting involves the same cat behavior, no matter whether you're talking about a house cat or a wild leopard.
First, they will silently stalk their prey, getting closer if they can, and then waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. During this time you might see their rear-end wiggle and their tail quickly switch from side to side. when the time is right to strike, a cat will lunge or run at her prey and deliver a killing bite that all cat species use...this means biting the prey at the back of the neck to sever the spinal cord.
When you see a cat making chattering sounds, it is often in combination with some of these same behaviors: the rear-end wiggling and the tail switching side to side. They may also do this when they are playing with a prey-like toy, such as a feather on a stick.
Chirping and chattering
Chirping and chattering are believed to be related to a cat's hunting instincts. Observations suggest that the most common time that chattering is heard (other than communication between adult cats or mother cats and kittens, as explained below) is when a cat is watching birds or another prey species.
Chattering seems to be common when the cats can't get to their prey, meaning it could be a mark of frustration. Another interpretation of this chattering is that it is a sign of excitement or anticipation of a productive 'hunt' because the prey looks easy to get to.
Yet another interpretation is that the cats are using chirping or chattering to mimic the prey they are seeing, typically birds or small rodents. This hunting tactic may be an attempt to get close to the birds or rodents while giving the prey species a false sense of security.
Chattering as mimic behavior
Back in 2010, National Geographic reported on an interesting cat behavior observed by researchers studying monkeys in the Amazon rain forest in Brazil. The researchers were observing tamarin monkeys when a jungle cat known as a margay approached and began imitating the call of a baby pied tamarin monkey.
The researchers said it was the first scientifically documented case of a cat imitating a prey species in the Americas. Cats may be the only predators in the world using vocal mimicry as a hunting tool. The researchers said the cat's call did not sound exactly like a baby monkey, but it was close enough to attract curious adult monkeys. The aftermath of this observation has led some scientists to suggest that cat's chattering behavior may be a case of mimicry as part of the cat hunting instincts.
The researcher involved in this observation, Fabio Rohe, with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said he and colleagues interviewed residents of the central Amazon who reported hearing other cat species—such as cougars and jaguars—also tricking their prey through mimicry.
Other causes of chattering sounds
Cat chattering is a normal communication tool that doesn't always involve hunting behavior. Mother cats use chirps and trills to tell their kittens to follow them. When they use this form of communication with humans, it likely means they want you to follow them to their food bowl...and fill it! Adult cats may also communicate with other adult cats this way.
Chattering is a sound of excitement and is related to cats' hunting instincts. Most cats chatter when watching other animals that could be considered prey, or when "hunting" prey-like toys.