The Brotherhood of Birds


I have been, perhaps, a branch of a tree,
a bird’s shadow,
the reflection of a river…

J. L. Ortiz

Birds live in our gardens, on our balconies, in our neighborhood trees. They offer city dwellers the only opportunity to live with wild animals (even gentle creatures such as birds are technically wild, ie “not domesticated”). How many of us pass up this gift without opening it? We praise their inspired song; we envy their ability to fly; but mostly we lead our lives as if they didn’t exist, or at least as if they were ornaments – beautiful but fortuitous – part of the scenery.

Other cultures are connected to the winged world in a different way. The San people, who live in the Kalahari Desert, explain it like this:

“If one day I see a bird and I recognize it, a fine thread forms between us. If I go out tomorrow and I recognize the same bird, the thread thickens a little. Every time I see and I recognize the same bird the thread grows until it becomes a rope. We have ropes connecting us with all the aspects of creation, with the whole universe.”

It may seem utopian to believe we could regain that level of connection with nature when we so removed far from the green nation and move at such a frenzied pace. Today, not only do we not bond with the birds that surround us but we suppose that the birds we come across are always different individuals that randomly cross our path. The opposite is true: because they are territorial animals, birds make their life in a home area within a radius of about ten to twenty meters. Once they identify a place and recognize its hiding places, its sources of supply and shelter, they don’t abandon it easily. Therefore, the birds we see every day are no more and no less than our neighbors. With a bit of patience and dedication we can learn to know them and even to distinguish one from another by some individual trait.

Why would we want to bond with birds? For our ancestors these animals were allies in their most important task: to defend themselves against predators and to detect prey. Birds alerted them to the presence of both with their movements and sounds, and thus rendered humans an indispensable service. Today, we no longer need them to survive, but if you can learn what professional tracker Jon Young called  “the deep language of the birds” (in What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World), your world will acquire unsuspected wonders. What does he mean by “deep language”? He is talking about a species-to-species communication, full of information encoded in vocalizations and bodily gestures, that is practiced by the creatures that surround us.

Young is an enthusiastic promoter of the idea of diving into nature in order to rediscover the native who lives in the heart of even the most entrenched city dweller. He has initiated a great many people in this art and in so doing has  helped to give confidence and a sense of belonging to at-risk adolescents and members of other vulnerable groups, through transformative experiences in nature.

Young’s first piece of advice for learning to re-establish the bond is simple: choose a “sit spot” close to home. It can be a bench in a square or a chair on your balcony or terrace, or in your garden. You should sit there every day for at least ten minutes, notebook in hand, to observe what happens. Young calls this “going out to listen to the news of the day.”

At first you may not notice anything at all. But once you learn to silence your mind, you’ll slowly start to read your environment like a musical score. But first, in order to be able to observe birds in action, instead of always catching them mid-flight, you will have to learn to develop four simple skills:

Owl vision. This consists of broadening your field of vision: widening your gaze to include the periphery; trying to capture as much visual information as you can, without moving your head or your eyes. This reassures birds and invites them to carry on with their lives as if you were not there. If you are walking, a variation is to face the other way and look over your shoulder at the bird, so it won’t notice you observing it.

Deer hearing. To sharpen your hearing, try to distinguish between sounds near and far. This will allow you to gather information about what’s going on with other birds that aren’t in your environment. You’ll also be able to make connections between events happening in different parts of the neighborhood.

Fox walk. Put your heel down first and then, gradually, the ball of your foot. This step produces a silent and unobtrusive walk, and at the same time shelters you from stepping on something potentially harmful, as your foot will “feel” the ground before it descends completely.

These three techniques will provide you with a sort of cloak of invisibility so that you can watch nature in peace. More importantly, they will generate a state of relaxation similar to that of any other contemplative practice (extra points if you discover this state before the last chapter, “The Lighthouse”). Young says that a common mistake made by people when they start bird watching is trying to be “stealthy”. Stealth alerts a bird to your presence because it is the attitude of a predator; what you seek is not stealth, but a state of inner peace and silence.

In any expedition to observe nature it helps to visualize two circles: one representing the circle of your perception, and the other the disruption caused by our presence. The idea is to enlarge the first circle as much as possible, and shrink the second in order to achieve the perfect sweet spot which enables you to watch wildlife unobtrusively.

In his book Young talks about the experience of a young man from a slum of New York who took his course as part of a social program. At the end of the first ten-minute observation period, the boy had not written down a single event. “Nothing happened,” he said, laconic and bored. On the second day, he wrote in his notebook that “a bird flew past me to my right.” After a week, he was already able to distinguish the thrush from the great kiskadee and to record that the one had stolen food from the other a few meters from his bench, while the parrots cackled excitedly in the branches of a eucalyptus. This small transformation bears witness to the fact that when we pay attention, the world expands; it becomes populated with beings, teeming with life. By applying these practices, Young says, “Birds become barometers for our awareness of the inner and outer landscape”.

They also produce another unexpected result: the child within you is suddenly revived, as if invited to play after years of confinement. Who doesn’t dream of being an explorer and going out to discover the secrets of the universe; more so when those secrets fly past us in front of our noses?

Let us see what we can learn from the winged kingdom, without the need for books or binoculars, through the sheer force of listening and curiosity.

Why they sing

There are five types of sounds that we can learn to recognize:

Song. This is by far the most studied – and enjoyed – of all bird sound. It differs from the call by its duration and complexity. Each bird has a basic “repertoire” of songs and calls, but this includes many variations according to the time of day, as we shall see.

Companion call. This is the sound birds use to communicate with each other and to announce to their peers their location or where to find tasty snacks. It is very recognizable in the great kiskadee: a high-pitched whistle that alerts the whole neighborhood (as well as its addressee). Subtlety is not one of the attributes of this species.

Juvenile begging. This is the hunger cry of the chicks. It is emitted with an open beak in the nest or when running behind a parent as the chick takes its first steps. You hear it mainly in spring, in the breeding season, and it is not necessary to train your ear much to recognize it. It is so clear that it awakens maternal instincts even in non-feathered animals.

Aggression. This is emitted especially by the males, in reaction to territorial threats. Often it accompanies a ritual display that seeks to dissuade an intruder or to mark territory rather than develop into a physical conflict. Birds, both male and female, are renowned for the displays they make to protect their nests, sometimes to warn off predators several times bigger than themselves.

Cry of alarm. There are different cries for different occasions. Some species have a specific alarm for terrestrial dangers and another for aerial threats. The click that thrushes make when a human intruder gets too close to a nest also belongs in this category.

In order to be able to recognize these different sounds it is necessary to first learn to discern the “baseline” of each species: its habitual behavior when all is calm and life is normal. Once you have learnt to distinguish this, it is easier to detect when something is happening that deserves your attention.

A good opportunity to observe that baseline is when birds are eating. You can take advantage of that moment to study their body language and sounds, so that you can contrast them with other behaviors when they appear.

The mystery of birdsong

Birdsong is a fascinating and mysterious form of behavior. We may ask: why do they sing? After all, singing is an activity that requires a lot of energy and can attract the attention of predators. In principle, there are two main reasons on which ornithologists agree: to defend territory and to attract potential mates. For the male, singing with vigor and dexterity is a way of showing off his attributes and getting females to listen to him.

But there is another way of looking at this, proposed by professor of Music and Philosophy David Rothenberg. In his book Why Birds Sing, Rothenberg accepts the reasons given by science, but allows himself to speculate about a third option. He says:

“Why do birds sing? For the same reasons we sing – because we can. Because we love to inhabit the pure realm of sound. Because we must sing – it’s the way we have been designed to tap into the pure shapes of sound. We celebrate this ability in our greatest tasks, defining ourselves, defending our places, calling out to the ones we love. But form remains far more than function”.

When he speaks of “form”, Rothenberg refers to the almost implausible elaboration and ornamentation of some songs. It is difficult to imagine why the lyrebird of Australia needs to perfectly imitate dozens of sounds (of other birds, of nature and also of elements of civilization such as flutes, cameras, car alarms and chainsaws) in order to be considered a fit mate by some exquisite female.

It is not only songs that seem to overcome utilitarian arguments: there is also the sense of aesthetics of the bowerbird of Australia and New Guinea, which color their nests with objects they find on the forest floor; and the choreographic talent of birds of paradise, found in the same corner of the world, which perform dance steps that could have inspired Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.

Could it be that some birds just enjoy singing, dancing, flying and displaying their beauty and their gifts? Let’s make room for that possibility in the infinite mystery of the world.

Nevertheless, it must be said, courtship songs are the most striking. In almost all species it is the males that sing (except in the tropics, where both members of the pair sing in duet, and among Argentine ovenbirds). The most spectacular displays occur in spring: first for sexual conquest and then to mark territory.

Songbirds are blessed with a syrinx (avian version of the larynx), an organ located where the trachea divides into the bronchial tubes. Each side of the syrinx produces independent sounds, allowing a bird to emit two different tones at the same time. Some birds can even sing ascending and descending notes simultaneously. One species, the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) can sing more notes than there are on a piano in a tenth of a second.

Although each species has a “base song”, when a colony is isolated from the rest by some geographical accident its members may end up developing their own “dialect” which they then pass on to their off-spring. That is why birds of the same species can intone different melodies. Can we sensitize our hearing enough to hear these variations?

On YouTube there are many recordings of songs and sounds of each species. Listening to them is a way of training your ear to recognize those which live in your vicinity. You have probably heard them thousands of times, but without relating the bird to the song.

Here are some birds with well-defined songs, which you might listen out for depending where you are in the world: rufous-collared sparrow, sparrow, thrush, great kiskadee, song thrush, blackbird, skylark.

Excerpt from Where Wonder Lives. Practices for Cultivating the Sacred in Your Daily Life.