Monday, December 31, 2012

Learning Bird Language

Arriving at our backyard “sit spot,” Jade and I didn’t have to wait long before the familiar chickadee duo appeared in a nearby thicket and began chirping happily. A male robin patrolling his territory wasn’t far behind, his pulsing crimson breast pumping out a gorgeous melody. Next to emerge, seemingly out of thin air, was a pair of song sparrows, who began a staccato of “seep-seep” calls. “I’m here.” “Yes, I’m here too.”

Suddenly, like a lighting strike, the calm morning was upended. The chickadees flew to a higher branch. All the birds switched to high-pitched alarm calls, echoed by other birds previously unseen. A host of avian eyes peered downward, searching. Somewhere in the underbrush, a predator had arrived . . .

Three years ago, I began work on a book about connecting people with nature. I must confess that, at the beginning, I felt a certain sense of self-satisfaction, convinced that a lifetime of outdoor play, hiking, and camping—including, cumulatively, years spent living in tents in remote places while digging dinosaur fossils—had forged within me a deep bond with nature. But researching this book destroyed that perception. Instead, I found that, like most of us, I was quite oblivious to the natural goings-on around me. Indeed I often impacted these events in negative ways.

My insights came in part from reading about “bird language,” the acquired skill of understanding the meaning of local animals’ calls and movements. Championed by expert naturalist, tracker, and mentor Jon Young, bird language offers a powerful tool to heighten our awareness of, and connection with, nature [1-3]. Throughout almost all of human history, people were fluent in the local dialect of bird language because it was a matter of life and death. A bird’s call might lead you to your next meal, or prevent you from becoming some other animal’s meal. 

Earlier this year, I decided it was time for me to learn bird language, and my ten year-old daughter Jade decided to join in on the fun. Our guide for the journey was Jon Young’s excellent 2012 book, What the Robin Knows [1]. By the end of the first month of regular visits to our backyard sit-spot, Jade and I were beginning to see the neighborhood differently. For one thing, those nameless little feathered creatures chirping in the trees were transforming into distinct species, each with a unique voice and character. Our journals soon included such entries as, “Pair of chickadees singing in thicket to west,” and “Four European starlings sitting in Monterey Pine to the south.” Through diligent awareness (aided by a pair of binoculars and a birding app on my iPhone), we were beginning to see and hear more.

Although birds are nearly ubiquitous outdoors, rarely do we stop and consider what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it in that spot and not another. Because we’ve forgotten what it’s like to hunt or be hunted, our implicit assumption is that birds are a lot like us, moving about almost randomly. But for most animals, predator and prey, random behavior offers a fast track to premature death. If you’re a North American songbird, predators come in various shapes and sizes, and threaten from multiple directions. Foxes and cats prowl the ground. Raccoons and ravens raid nests in trees. Hawks and owls attack from the air. Most feared of all, it seems, are accipters like the Cooper’s hawk, a common but rarely seen assassin befitting the title, “Death from Above.” Cooper’s hawks are experts at killing birds on the wing, diving fearlessly into trees and thickets.

No surprise then that most birds have small territories that they know intimately, and tend to follow the same paths through these spaces. Along with understanding local geography, those robins, wrens, and ravens are fluent in bird language. Always vigilant, they listen continually for alarm calls, and not just from their own kind. A robin will react to the alarm of a song sparrow and vice versa. For the same reason, squirrels and rabbits know bird language too. The end result is a vast web of awareness that generates a local, ever-shifting “mood.” If the mood is relaxed, “baseline” behaviors such as feeding and song dominate. If things turn tense, alarms will sound, silence may ensue, and animals often flee. Although we tend to ignore our neighborhood avians, it turns out that the birds know us, and our pets. Why? Because it’s a matter of life and death. Local birds even react in predictable ways to our behaviors. We simply fail to notice.

But Jade and I are starting to take note. We’ve learned that the way we walk to our sit spot—slow and relaxed instead of hurried—can greatly reduce the time it takes for the birds to resume their baseline behavior. The biggest challenge in becoming adept at bird language, we found, is getting to know this baseline for a variety of local birds. Each species uses several different vocalizations, from melodious songs and subtle companion calls to boisterous territorial squawking and, in the case of hungry babies, impatient screams. Only by gaining firsthand understanding of this background behavior can one begin to detect disturbances that might indicate a predator’s presence.

Yet, even with just a few weeks practice under our belts, Jade and I found our awareness expanding, and with it our sense of appreciation and even empathy. When familiar birds are absent during our sit-spot sessions, we wonder what they’re up to. And we find ourselves slowing down more often as we enter and exited the house, listening for signs of the neighborhood “mood.” Wildness just outside the front door is helping us deepen our bond with nature. These interactions, I have come to realize, are essential to nature connection. If we are going to foster in our children (and ourselves) that all-important sense of internal wildness, we must first have abundant experience of external wildness.

Jade and I are looking forward to becoming more fluent in bird language in the coming year, and using these new skills to identify and actually catch sight of local predators.

What will you do in 2013 to connect yourself and others with nature?

Notes and References
1. Young, Jon. 2012. What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
2. Young, J., E. Haas, and E. McGown. Coyote’s Guide To Connecting With Nature, Second Edition.   OWLink Media, Shelton, WA.

Image Credits (top to bottom)
1) Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve
2) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


  1. Such a great piece. My boys & I plan to spend even more time getting to know what we call our "backyard nature" - the world right outside our front door & the creatures who call it home. Best to you & yours in 2013!

  2. Becoming the animal catcher/rescuer at my school here in Hong Kong has given me a good conduit to get my students to see that nature isn't out to kill you. You think things are bad in North America, you need to see how removed and isolated people in Asia are from nature...

    My kids run in fear from house flies!

    I want to try and take my class out to the park beside the school once the frog mating season begins again. Have my kids make observations in this safe but yet animal filled environment.

  3. I loved teaching the lab for Ornithology. I would always tell my students that, after completing the lab, they would never be able to go outside, hear a bird, and just say "Oh, it's a bird." They would know that each species of bird has a distinct set of vocalizations and (with practice) they can be distinguished from one another. After the semester was over I had a couple of students contact me and say they felt obligated to identify the different birds they heard (to family level, at least). Success!

    When I head outside to refill the bird feeders, a member of the resident "gang" of Black-capped Chickadees will send up a territory call, which results in the rest of the gang flying over to the feeder tree to wait somewhat patiently (I hear a few scolding calls) while I work. Bird behaviour is fascinating!

  4. Thanks! My Daughter and I are doing the same thing, just less formally, as she is 5.

  5. Thank you all for your comments. Great to hear that you're trying a variety of approaches to connect kids with nature. It all starts with simply paying attention!

  6. We love your work on Dinosaur Train! Our daughter, Brooke has been watching since she was a little over a month old (she's now six months)! She loves the characters and music, and watches intently when you provide commentary on the science behind a particular episode. Your commentary has provided us with so many good ideas to get Brooke "into nature" early and often. Thank you for making the education of children in these critical areas a priority.

  7. But for most animals, predator and prey, random behavior offers a fast ...

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