The Secret to Seeing Wildlife with Bird Language
A Heartfelt Thanks to the Birds
As the birds fly overhead, flit from branch to branch or perch on our feeders, do we actually notice them?
Do we see the interactions between different birds, notice their reactions or lack thereof to our presence? Do we know the difference between when they are happy and content in song or their startled into alarm? Our ears may be aware of the sounds coming from the birds that fill the air, but sometimes in our natural rhythm of our own busyness and our being “human doings” rather than human beings, we might not appreciate this amazing gift of the rich language that is articulated around us all the time. Here is a friendly reminder of the neighbors with whom we share our homes and the possibility of deepening our relationship with them.
A historic cultural perspective
In many native cultures and hunter gather societies from around the world there are many stories (oral traditions) and practices that instilled many values and help connect people to the earth, their families and also to oneself. One of the teachings I learned from a Mohawk man named Jake Swamp, subchief of the wolf clan, is a custom called the Thanksgiving address. This is one version of this amazing custom which truly emulates the sacredness and appreciation of the birds.
“We bring our minds together and send our greetings and thanksgiving to the birds at the beginning of time the birds were given a very specific duty to perform in order to help lift the troubled minds from the human family and many times during the day our minds are often lifted by the sounds of the bird nations songs. With one mind we send out a thanksgiving to all the birds of the world”
Lessons from my Dad and storytelling
Looking back to when I was a child I began to learn about birds because my father told me my aunt used to have birds eat right out of her hand and I was inspired by this. So I began to try my own methods, and this is when the birds became my teachers of the lessons of patience, awareness and perseverance. When I wasn’t at the feeder, I also began to tune into the birds to their songs as well as their behavior and could tell what birds were around just by hearing them (this is called birding by ear).
I started to adopt this philosophy of Thanksgiving when I wake up in the morning to greet the day whether it is just a few minutes or preferably longer. Another one of my mentors, Jon Young from the Wilderness Awareness School, said that he learned in childhood from one of his Elders from Poland to “never disturb a singing Bird because it is in its thanksgiving“. Since I learned that and something that is called “Bird language” I have a whole new appreciation for the birds, it has opened up so many doors of possibilities. Now instead of only seeing the white tail of the deer as it bounds away from me or wondering where all of the animals are, I’ve instead had some amazingly intimate experiences. Let me share one with you. I was fox walking and using wide-angle vision (techniques of movement and Awareness that we share in our programs), being conscious of the bird language and fully present in the moment and noticing everything was in its natural rhythm. I was able to walk up to a deer without creating any alarms from the birds or the deer. I froze in place statue still. The deer was walking slowly and started to investigate the other visitor, a porcupine that was also a few feet from me. This transported me to the many times before I had been tracking these amazing beings. I had seen their tracks and now seeing them move in their natural rhythm right in front of me was a “gift”. I paused and gave thanks. I don’t tell you this to impress you, but to have you realize that this can be more of what you can experience yourself. I learned that this is mostly from visiting one place over and over that is the key by adopting a place on the land. I was in plain sight in a pair of jeans and fleece top no special camouflage or anything. The porcupine almost walked right up to me. Then the deer passed by me and started sniffing the porcupine. I felt as if I was in the middle of a special show “Wild America”! As I look back at these “gifts” I cannot help but feel thankful.
Practice with your friend and family and have fun with it.
I am going to share with you the five voices of the birds which Jon has shared with me. If you are just starting out or have been birding for years the information on this subject can seem quite overwhelming, but I will do my best to give a simple introduction to five major types of bird language so that you can begin to unlock your understanding of what the birds can tell you.
So what is this thing — Bird language? Well, first know that there are no hard and fast rules and what I’m about to share are tendencies and not absolutes. Being aware of these tendencies may be fruitful and will get you on your way to learning this rich language…”
Of the five voices, four are baseline voices and one is the voice of “ALARM”. Baseline is the natural rhythm of the Forest which is the way the animals and the birds and all the creatures live. This reflects their life of survival. One of the most important ways of life is conservation of energy. This is not just a good idea, this is a necessity.
The song: this is the one we are most familiar with. Scientists say that this is how birds set up their territory. This may be true, but also think of this scene: the birds awake at first light and there is a dawn chorus as they sing they turn to face the warmth of the sun greeting the day, maybe they are simply giving thanks for another day to be alive? Maybe we could greet each day with a song of thanks and praise? This could be a powerful lesson from the birds.
Think of the song as baseline behavior/no alarm. You will notice when the ground birds such as the robin and the song sparrow are singing and when the tree top birds (the warblers) are singing.
You will notice when the cat moves through the yard and alarms the robin and the song sparrow, interrupting their song, but the grosbeak (in the tree top) is still singing. The ground birds are the ones most interested in the potential danger, the grosbeak comfortably out of immediate reach.
The companion call: The best way to explain this is to think of a pair of male and female cardinals. They’re communicating back-and-forth not with a song but a “chip”. This is a short sound, very high pitched and some people may call this a call note. This call will go back-and forth “male chip, female chip, male chip, female chip”. The call has a rhythm with the same time and distance between the birds. This is baseline again; there are no predators. However if one of the cardinals is making too much noise and does not return the call there will be nervous series of rapid calls “chip/chip/chip/chip” (this is challenging to describe in words but if you listen for it you will know it). The call is then returned to baseline if there’s no danger.
Aggression: Two males encounter each other over territorial dispute. They will chase each other around vocalizing. This display makes a lot of noise and when first starting out you may mistake it for being an alarm. There may be a tremendous amount of body language associated with this–birds flying into each other, chasing each other, etc., but if you look around you will notice the other birds are feeding in baseline. As you develop a discerning ear you will be able to tell when you hear a loud raucous of birds that there is no predator nothing is endangering them, it is clearly baseline with aggression.
Begging calls: this sound is what happens throughout the spring and early summer and you can tell when you start to hear these calls because it sounds like constant begging (feed me, feed me, feed me), in this moment it is still a baseline call for young birds. However you may hear an adolescent bird constantly calling for food while other birds have stopped feeding and singing and everything is silent. This silence is a sign of another alarm–possibly a Sharp-shinned hawk coming through to feed its own adolescents on their main stay of songbirds.
These are the four baseline voices. Learn them and remember that the more you practice the more you will expand your awareness of and appreciation for the birds.
Alarm: The voice of alarm is when a danger or predator is at large on the landscape and there is intense body language and intense vocalization which is enough to call other species of birds to alarm. It is mostly a multi-species response to danger.
Daily practice when you walk to your mailbox, your car and into the fields and forest
Now that you have some tools for understanding Bird language remember them as you walk out to your mailbox or to your car or into the forest. Be aware of the birds and the messages they have for you. What is the robin’s reaction to you? Hopefully you will notice it next time. The robin, in essence, is holding up a mirror for you to see your level of awareness and empathy reflected back at you. It’s letting you know how well you are learning their language. Are you going to be accepted by them and learn to see through the eyes of the birds?
I’m glad that I can share just the taste of this art with you. So get out there with your new awareness of Bird language! If this has inspired you and you want to learn more, hopefully you
will connect with us here at Earthwork Programs, Wilderness Awareness School and other schools that are sharing and passing on these skills.
All good medicine,
Frank Grindrod is founder and owner of Earthwork Programs, a local business since 1999. Earthwork Programs is dedicated to teaching people earth skills such as nature awareness, tracking, wilderness living skills, survival, and earth philosophy. Earthwork Programs is also recognized as a Nurtured Heart™ School. Visit Frank and Earthwork Programs at www.earthworkprograms.com. Immersed in Nature, We Reconnect You with the Earth.