In most ways, Kuşköy resembles countless other villages nestled in the Pontic Mountains along Turkey’s Black Sea coast. Its 500 or so residents cultivate tea and hazelnuts; there is one street with a baker, a butcher, and a few cafes. It is the sounds, not the sights, that make Kuşköy different. For generations, villagers have conversed using a unique form of whistled communication they call “kuş dili,” or “bird language” in Turkish.

In fact, the melodies of local birds are often similar to kuş dili; a morning song of the blackbird is the same as a famous verse in the Quran. Like other forms of whistled communication, kuş dili arose in a region where the rugged ground and sparse population made travel difficult even over short distances. A whistle can reverberate for more than a kilometer.

Most villagers believe kuş dili arose about 400 years ago, although no one knows for sure. The “language” is, in fact, a whistled dialect of Turkish, with each syllable rendered in one of about 20 different sounds. Typical subjects include invitations to tea or to help with work, notifying neighbors about the arrival of a truck to pick up the harvest, or announcements of funerals, births and weddings.

The slow process of modernization in the village helped preserve kuş dili, but, in recent decades – particularly since the arrival of cell phones – the language has been in decline. Technology is not the only threat. As in other parts of rural Turkey, many young people are leaving Kuşköy in search of better opportunities in the country’s booming cities.