One of the most magical things that happens this time of year is the return of all the birds who had moved away for the winter. In early spring, I love being surprised by birdsongs I haven’t heard in six months. In fact, any time of the year, birds never fail to bring me a sense of wonder and joy. I can think of countless special moments with birds: Going on my morning walk and being swooped by clouds of swallows. Looking up from reading on the porch to realize I’m surrounded by a flock of robins pulling worms out of the dirt. Hearing the water-drop call of the raven as he silently bends his flight over the meadow. Puzzling over a good “Bird Mystery” until it finally reveals itself (more on Bird Mysteries in another post!).
And I’m sure all of you reading this can think of your own special moments you’ve had with birds. So, it leads me to this question: Why are birds so captivating to us?
One major reason we are so drawn to birds is that ancestrally, they were integral to our survival as humans. Of course, all beings are important for the survival of all other beings. Most of us probably learned this along the way in a science class – the Web of Life. If you didn’t learn about it, here’s a crash course: If you take away one thing in our world (even something as annoying as mosquitos), it affects everything else (think of how many beings depend on mosquitos for their food, and how many other beings depend on those beings for their food, etc., etc.). But the Web of Life is more complex than just food chains, and birds are even more directly related to our survival than they may seem at first. We will mainly focus on songbirds (smaller birds that are not considered birds of prey) for the rest of this post.
The key to songbirds’ survival strategy lies in their vulnerability. They are tiny, weigh almost nothing, and don’t have much in the way of physical defenses against predators. Their small bodies and constant motion require a lot of energy input (i.e., food) to keep them alive, and they don’t have much energy to “waste” on non-essential activities. They are also extremely sensitive to environmental changes. This vulnerability has even been exploited to make sure that mine shafts were safe for humans. Ever heard the term “canary in the coal mine”? Canaries are very sensitive to carbon monoxide, so miners used to use bring a caged bird into the mine with them, the idea being that if the canary died, they would know the carbon monoxide was at a dangerous level.
This fine line of existence has caused songbirds to adapt their own unique and very precise strategies of survival. Where they choose to perch, what vocalizations they use (or don’t use), even the direction they are facing can tell us something about their surroundings, and thus, our own surroundings. In this way, birds are constantly communicating something to us. In reality, all beings are constantly communicating something. But birds are unique in a few ways. One is that they are quite vocal, so we can hear them from a distance. Another is that they are able to fly, giving them both a vantage point that we lack, and a prominence in our vision.
I first learned about this concept of “bird language” from Jon Young, a nature connection teacher, at a workshop. Jon has spent a lot of time with the San people of the Kalahari, the indigenous people of Southern Africa, who are considered one of the oldest cultures on the planet. They are nomadic hunter-gatherers who maintained their ancestral connection to the land until somewhat recently, when they were forcibly removed from their land by the government. You can read more about the San here.
Observing a group like the San who maintained their connection to the land gives us a glimpse of the knowledge that all of our ancestors once had. In the workshop, Jon shared a story that really illustrated how important bird language has been to our survival. One day, he told us, he asked a woman where the closest lion was. She didn’t even look up from what she was doing, pointed her finger, and said, “Walk 5 minutes that way and you will find him.”
For those of us living in this very modern world, we don’t need to know where the nearest predator is. But that survival connection with birds still lives in us, and we can still hear what the birds are saying, if we want to listen. All it requires is that we learn the patterns of their language.
The easiest way to start learning how birds communicate is to listen to their vocalizations. There are 5 major voices that birds use. I highly recommend reading Jon Young’s book, What the Robin Knows, as it goes very in-depth into bird language. Below is a short description of each of the voices, along with some things we can know when we hear them:
1. Songs – Musical calls, usually by male birds during the nesting period to establish their territory or attract a mate.
2. Contact Calls – Soft, repetitive sounds that birds use to keep track of each other while feeding.
3. Territorial Aggression – Short, intense bursts of action that may be accompanied by loud calls and wing-flapping. This happens between just one pair of birds as they fight for territory. Usually, all other birds in the area will be going about their business as normal.
4. Juvenile Begging – Incessant calls from juvenile birds for their parents to feed them. Since juveniles haven’t “learned the rules” yet, they may still make their normal calls, even while other birds are alarming, and there are predators around.
5. Alarms – Loud, intense calls (which often sound like just a louder, more urgent version of a bird’s contact call) that signal that a threat is nearby.
The first 4 voices (songs, contact calls, territorial aggression, and, for the most part, juvenile begging) indicate that birds are relaxed and not feeling threatened. This is referred to as “baseline” behavior. The fifth voice (alarms) are what alert us that something is going on around us that we might not be able to see. If we want to know what’s going on around us, the key for us is to recognize when birds are not in baseline behavior, and to use their specific alarm calls to figure out what’s happening. They could be alarming at a weasel, a house cat, a hawk, a cougar, or other human beings.
This may be inherently fascinating to some of us, but others might be wondering, “Why does this matter if we don’t actually need it for survival anymore?” The answer to this question, and to my original question (Why are birds so captivating to us?) can be found in our nervous systems. Our nervous systems are always looking for threats – in every moment, they want to know if we’re safe or not, so they can respond accordingly. Because bird language is so hardwired into us after generations of depending on them for our survival, being tuned into what the birds are telling us can give us a sense of safety. Having a sense of physical safety is a prerequisite for us to engage in all the other parts of our lives that are so fulfilling – like creating, learning, or having fun. So, listening to a bird sing can be so captivating because, on a deep level, it’s telling us, “You’re safe,” and giving us permission to pursue our highest selves.
Beyond physical safety, birds can also provide us a sense of “soul safety.” When we listen to them, we become connected to something beyond us. It places us firmly in the story that is unfolding in this moment – the story of the now – and reminds us that this moment is being co-created by all of us. It brings us out of the isolation of our own minds and reminds us that we are part of a universal consciousness that is so interconnected that, if we listened, we could know where the nearest lion is. This profound feeling of connection is something that we are all seeking in our own ways, and our relationship with birds can remind us how to experience it.
So next time you go outside, see if you can hear and feel what messages the birds are sending you.