Recently I spent a weekend at a workshop on bird language led by Jon Young, a deeply inspiring naturalist, tracker, and mentor; and author of What the Robin Knows. The language of birds – I always love the way it sounds, secret and mysterious.
In practice, the format involves covering a piece of land with quiet listeners; each person individually recording the tone of the voices of the birds around them (relaxed song, alarm, companion calls to check in, etc.); bringing it all together in a series of expanding maps of the territory; and slowly watching a story emerge. And then doing it over and over again until you become fluent.
Songbirds comment on everything. They have to. It’s how they survive, and all of the other animals know how to interpret what they’re saying. The language of birds is the language of the forest, the field, the swamp, even of your backyard. Learning to listen in on this is an amazing naturalist skill. You start to anticipate what is going to happen – the hawk swooping in, the bobcat slowly walking through the forest, the erratic movements of the weasel. You know where the predators are. You read the forest as a constantly communicating organism. Seeing people interpret the subtleties of this blows my mind.
I have a long way to go on this. Really a very long way. But I am learning that tuning in to what the birds are saying is a form of meditation. Their constant vulnerability, their constant communication moves me; it teaches me to be present; it teaches me to listen; it teaches me empathy.
I stood under the trees
I swayed like a tree myself
Rustled my branches, my leaves
Shifted my weight gently
Rooted myself into that place
If only for a while.
I heard above me the small metallic sound
Of a bird speaking to its mate:
Red throat, white breast, black wings
Its mate a soft brown,
Holding each other
In this voiced embrace.
For a moment, a tiny tanager joined them,
A gift of red and black
The pair persisted
Soft and insistent
Never letting go.
How can we speak to those we love
As birds call to their mates, their flock?
This is the trust
Its even rhythm
This morning the forest voiced interdependence to me
In a pair of birds.