Learning Bird Language

These days, even with the Covid pandemic still raging, it’s still possible to find an online talk about the language of birds oriented to backyard bird enthusiasts. All that undifferentiated sound we walk through any day, any season, as we go about our lives. Many of these talks attune the untutored ear to small details that often go unnoticed and suggest that anyone can gradually build an understanding of the purpose, nature, and nuance of bird communication. It’s about attention to ambient sounds that carry meaning and can illuminate behavior, drawing us to notice something interesting that we might not otherwise observe in the world around us.

Covid has also driven people to seek or renew a connection with nature and with animals. A widely reported spike in dog obedience training resulting from unprecedented numbers of adoptions of puppies is just one result. Starting last spring, sales in live chicks from poultry hatcheries around the country skyrocketed. Through the pandemic we have taken to the outdoors as a way of soothing our battered spirits through this dark period of isolation. The wildlife tracking group that I participate in now regularly fills up within hours of a scheduled event announcement.

Sometimes the first impulse is to bring a sense of connection to us, only later stepping out of our safety zone to find it. To look and listen in ways we hadn’t before. Sometimes we project ourselves onto the natural world, which also hinders our ability to see what’s not us out there. Living with the wilderness at our doorstep has made that process easier for me. But anyone can enhance their ability to attune to small but meaningful details in nature that are easy to miss.

I may notice a single chickadee following me as I return home from the last leg of a morning walk. A chickadee that appears to know that I am (or, more precisely, the bird feeder I fill every day is) a valued food source. I may interpret its behavior as it hops from branch to branch, each time landing just ahead of me and calling repeatedly, as a reminder for me to get on with it and refill the bird feeder. Of course this is an ambiguous scenario, but one day recently (and other days when this same scenario was repeated) I found myself feeling fairly confident that this feisty chickadee was trying everything in its power how to get my attention for a clear purpose. There I go again, being a human and thinking I’m the center of the universe.

Humans are so hardwired to assign meaning to what we perceive in the world that it’s almost impossible for us not to observe animals without contributing some element of anthropomorphic interpretation. We automatically attach stories to everything, even our own thoughts and behaviors. Changing our default way of operating requires us to train ourselves to stop–or at least to be more aware of–our anthropocentric thinking.

For those of us who are pretty well attuned to non-human animal behavior, we can easily take advantage of the way birds and other animals in our midst—even our family dogs—can expand our relatively limited human perceptions by just being themselves and going about their business. 

I often think of it as borrowing some of the greater perceptual capacities of my non-human friends in order to enhance my ability to sense what’s going on around me. Tapping in, paying close attention to non-human animal sensitivities, can open us to encounters in the world that we would likely miss. Encounters that enrich our lives, inspire compassion and empathy, and teach us to see ourselves as part of rather than the center of the natural world. And of course we can just enjoy a welcome leap of the heart when out of the muffled sounds following a February snowstorm a “foreign” sound signalling an imperceptible shift enters our world: the piercing sound of a cardinal’s first call to a mate, or the soft chirrup of a bluebird couple on recon, inspecting the box in advance of the family to come.

A perhaps more obvious but less frequently recognized kind of bird language is the array of warning or alert calls that birds use to announce the presence of predators. Over the years I’ve learned to rely on my titmouse buddies and ever garrulous house wrens–when they’re here–to reliably inform me of neighborhood cats or their wilder cousins on the prowl for a quick daytime meal of a songbird. While rare instances in which I’ve been unable to locate the intruder do occur, the alarm calls are never frivolous, and I’m usually successful, finding the culprit sitting tight in a forest of sunflower stalks or lurking around the woodpile. 

The soundtrack of a video I captured of a young bobcat walking down our dry stream bed last summer is completely taken up by a cacophony of the red-alert sirens from blue jays and house wrens. If not for the avian warnings I would never have been ready for what happened next. The drama may be dominated by the magnificent cat inspiring the alerts, but if all we see is the cat, we miss a striking social dynamic at work.

Once, a decade or so ago, stepping from the front porch of a house we no longer live in, I set out to identify the cause of our titmouse clan’s mad alerts. I examined around the house and garden several times. No cats or hawks to be seen. But my little friends continued to sound the alarm. This went on for at least a half hour, the sustained intensity indicating a persistent threat. Finally, while standing by the barn where the buzzing and screeching seemed to be focused, I spotted two white ears, below which one blue and one yellow eye squinted at me over the gutter. 

A neighborhood cat who often visited our yard and garden had stretched herself out flat in the gutter, where she remained all but invisible to a human walking by down below. If she just hung out there long enough, the birds might forget she was there. Or not.

Anna Bowie Pepper had introduced herself to us the day we moved in, by sashaying into the open door of our then new home, a wonderful 200-year-old farmhouse. The door had been propped open for the movers who were traipsing in and out, and at one point this fearless visitor who appeared not to see herself as a visitor at all, even waltzed right into the moving van to investigate. The previous owners mentioned her to us as a familiar presence, which is how we learned that her name–or rather, one of her names–was Anna Bowie.

Some months later a skunk tried to den into our basement, having entered through a space in the stone foundation. The cat had apparently used that same opening to get into and out of the basement herself. Based on evidence I found after the fact, she’d been using the crawlspace dirt as her own private litter box. That day a blood curdling yowl sent me reflexively to the side of the house where the sound seemed to be coming from. Just as the smell of skunk reached me, the white cat bolted from a small hole in the foundation and ran tail-tucked past me, never to employ that particular route to mischief again.  Apparently she and the skunk had encountered each other somewhere in the small pathway they’d each been using to travel through the foundation.

Anna Bowie had two families. She had been “adopted” by a neighbor, Phoebe, who had named her Anna Bowie due to her different colored eyes. For all intents and purposes, Anna Bowie was her cat, a stray that she had taken in and had gotten spayed and treated for injures sustained in various other encounters with neighborhood wildlife. When we met Anna Bowie on that first day, it was obvious she had been in a fight because her face and head were covered with fairly severe bite wounds. A feral cat? A raccoon? The injuries appeared to have been treated and were healing up pretty well.

At one point Phoebe came by to report that the cat had disappeared for long enough that she had grown quite worried. She bemoaned the fact that she had spent so much money on veterinary bills, and now Anna Bowie was gone. We told her we would keep an eye out.

The white cat with one blue and one yellow eye did turn up, drawn to our bird feeder and bluebird boxes, the garden post her favorite spot to look for opportunities to do mischief. The thing is, she hadn’t disappeared; she had just moved in with another family. I realized this when I was watching her nonchalantly entertaining herself on top of the garden post. 

I was preparing to chase her away from the bluebird box when I heard some children who lived in a nearby apartment complex calling Here Pepper! The cat ran off in that direction, seemingly in response to the children’s call.  Apparently the charming little cat who couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble had a few secrets. I began to wonder who had adopted whom. It was the titmice who–acting as my informants–helped me to piece together this narrative, never failing to let me know when Anna Bowie-Pepper was prowling around my bird feeder and garden. When the birds eventually stopped their regular alerts, I concluded that Anna Bowie-Pepper had disappeared for good, the victim, I assumed, of a fox, coyote, raccoon, or car. We never saw her again. But wait, could she have eloped with yet another family? Who knows.

red-eyed vireo nest

A few years before we moved to that farmhouse, I was invited to collect data on breeding birds in the area, which is how I ended up in the deep dimness of the woods a little after dawn one early spring morning. I had little enough experience not to realize what a handicap my lack of expertise would be, so, when asked, I agreed to do some data collection for a new edition of the Audubon Breeding Bird Atlas. I was led to believe my enthusiasm would be enough.

I’d been reassured by an Audubon employee at a nearby wildlife sanctuary that I would learn a lot from working on such a project; all I had to do was follow the instructions and I’d be fine. Not quite so simple, I was to discover. The guidelines indicated that the presence of a given bird species during its specific breeding window could be confirmed by its song alone, even if the bird hadn’t actually been physically observed. Which would require quite a bit more knowledge of bird calls than I possessed at the time. Of course the objective is to see and document breeding behavior, for which a higher code value would be assigned. But presence, a legitimate coded observation, could be established by identifying a particular bird’s call.

Quiet please! Chipmunks sleeping

At the time I had far to go in my process of learning the songs of many species, even those that are obvious to me now. Novice that I was, I had no idea how to tell the difference between an American redstart, red-eyed vireo, or hermit thrush, let alone the entire panoply of warblers that represent an identification challenge for anyone to master. That spring many a warbler escaped my detection. Even after years of working at it, I can still lose confidence when deciding whether I’m looking at a magnolia warbler or a yellow-rumped warbler. I still find it difficult to differentiate between the songs of a yellow-rumped warbler and a chestnut-sided warbler. But I can still enjoy the learning journey and the birds just for being themselves during the relatively brief season when they’re here.

magnolia warbler

That journey began as I stood there in the dusky light that morning realizing I had what seemed like an impossible task ahead of me. But I set about what would become a years-long project of learning very gradually to recognize the ambient bird calls around me, much as I’d worked to separate words from strings of sounds when trying to learn a new human language. At my earliest stages of learning bird calls, even the mnemonics that can be applied to help people recognize and remember various bird calls are only minimally helpful, if at all. For example, though I was familiar with the (obviously) English speaker’s mnemonic for the chestnut sided warbler: see see see Miss Beecher, or pleased pleased pleased to meet you, the first time I actually heard one, what I thought I heard was see see see the noodles. And the Carolina wren’s teakettle teakettle teakettle never fails to ring in my ear as jupiter jupiter jupiter. So while the songs don’t vary much, if at all, our human way of hearing them has limitations. Still, the fact that we come up with these sometimes ridiculous learning aids is quite remarkable in itself.

Despite my skill limitations, that morning also stands out as the first time I experienced the Zen of being perfectly still in what only on the surface appeared to be total stillness.  I experienced a sense of opening up all senses and deepening my awareness, without any concern for time, feeling what it meant to stop, quiet the mind, calm the spirit, and take in all the small behaviors and sounds happening all around me. It was about following a tiny movement or a sound wherever it led and staying with it until I gleaned some bit of information that I could hold onto, whether or not it was worth writing down.

Gradually I would use this approach to learn that this seemingly overwhelming constellation of minutiae, much of which is specific and predictable, lends itself to narratives, stories in miniature, of life sustaining itself in nature. It didn’t feel like waiting. It felt like breathing. Like being.

Photo credit: Janice Tessinari

Over time, this approach carried over to wilderness tracking and in some ways helped me overcome my long-standing fear of bears that had developed over several frightening encounters while camping in my younger days. Once able to identify bear sign, to be in the places where black bears were actively going about their lives–perhaps stepping across a path within seconds of my appearance, or even watching me–I gradually came to accept their presence, as they might accept mine (or not), whenever we’d find ourselves in each other’s space.

That was a far cry from the time I spent an entire night in the cold rain of the Smokey Mountains tied to a corrugated steel shelter roof simply because I had seen a baby bear going up a tree after our food bag and was convinced the mother would return during the night and tear me to shreds. I wanted to be able to see her coming. That’s phobia for you. And tracking cured me of it.

On this particular morning in the woods–pre-tracking days–I had of course pondered the likelihood that I could come into contact with a bear, but I found myself face to face, instead, with a juvenile barred owl perched on a low branch, large but still haloed in baby fluff, probably waiting for its mother to return with a meal. A little startled, we found each other’s eyes and wondered of our sudden and surprising proximity. I moved off fairly quickly, so as not to cause undue stress or to challenge the young bird to try to move from where its parents had left it. In this case I got out of there quickly enough to avoid a different kind of warning: a taloned swoop.  To this day I associate that gnomish face with the art of listening.

More than a decade on now, I frequently see a redtail in one of its spytrees on the edge of the meadow next to the house we live in now. It frequently glides back and forth across the open field to watch for prey from its several favorite vantage points. I rarely hear its call these days, as this pandemic winter, desolate for us humans in so many ways, has brought so much cold and snow, which I imagine diminishes the raptor’s opportunities to peruse the meadow from the air. That’s usually when I hear its long thin wail from above, an expression of something inscrutable as it circles over grassy space dense with meadow voles and other rodents.  For now, though, the voles move within the relative safety of their vast subnevean networks, traveling above ground but beneath the surface of the snow, leaving the raptor watching for a brief whisker-poke from just inside a back door or a mad dash to a more distant entry way.

The primal sound of a redtail’s call never fails to arrest me. I’ve learned, though, to differentiate impostors such as the blue jay who has figured out that an approximation of that call is enough to clear the bird feeder of songbirds, allowing the clever ventriloquist to proceed to its own meal without having to bother with competition from chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and red-bellied woodpeckers, among others.

I’ve learned to listen for the blue jay imitation’s imperfections in mimicking the hawk, clever and effective as the ruse may be. The jay’s version tends to be breathier, more uneven. It may be an approximation, but it still works to clear the feeding station for the jays. At least for a few minutes.

We’ve had a series of severe winter storms this year that have brought a lot of snow and some bitter cold temperatures to the Northeast. The most noteworthy one that’s impacted us here extended from Texas to Maine, bringing arctic air to places in the south that are entirely unaccustomed to single-digit temperatures and rarely get more than an inch or two of snow, which was enough to create havoc and hazard for drivers in those regions. This one is now infamous for the devastating power outages and the horrific water crisis that has yet to be resolved weeks later. This winter has brought us one or two nor’easters, several bouts of deep cold that dipped below zero, and a steady snowpack, the delight of trackers like me, skiers, and anyone who loves winter for its own sake. So I’ve lost track (no pun intended) of which storm it was when the ravens showed up, as we’ve had several more storms since.

I waited until the wind had quieted some and had gone out to the chicken coop with food, fresh water to replace the iced over water, and to check on my hens’ environment. This is their first winter, my first year raising chickens, and with all the cold and bad weather, keeping them safe and comfortable has been a constant source of anxiety.

The coop stands maybe 75 yards from the house, between which lies that meadow where the redtail hunts. Further out, the meadow abuts deep woods strewn for miles with glacial boulders and fallen trees providing shelter for black bear, fox, coyote, bobcat, ermine, and other potential predators whose presence is unavoidable and mostly welcome, as long as I’m able to reassure myself that my hens are as safe as I can make them.

A storm that had brought a few more inches of new snow was winding down. The wind had calmed but the air sifted large flakes upward and downward in a dense swirl. Two ravens cut across the meadow from a stand of tall pines on the edge of the forest, their voices cutting the muffled silence turned my head before I got a glimpse of their bodies dancing through the still-thick snowfall.

Not for this bird!

They seemed to be announcing the dissolution of the storm, light but powerful on their wings, perhaps feeding off what was left of the weather event’s dwindling energy. While I try to avoid to anthropomorphizing, I don’t always succeed. The temptation is especially hard to resist when watching ravens’ behavior.

At that moment their voices and attitude appeared playful, as if they were taking joy in their confidence of the storm’s worst having passed. As if they were eager to get out, be social, find food, harass some hawk or other—possibly the redtail—out from where it had been patiently riding out the storm.  Maybe that’s just my pandemic-weary brain’s projections. Or my persistent human ones. Maybe they just love the wind, regardless of the weather.

Recently, when storm that had been raging across the country was about to hit New Mexico, a friend—a former New Englander—described the anticipatory moment in an email: “Everything here poised for cold and storm moving in tonight. 

The ravens wheeling and diving as they do, high in the increasing wind, obviously joyfully.”  These bookend images of ravens “enjoying” the onset and diminution of sister storms sat with me. I wondered out loud to my friend in my reply about the way the ravens’ voices sound in a storm compared to the way they sound as they soar—and play—in updrafts on a sunny day.

I wrote, “Perhaps the difference is just a perception driven entirely by mood. But I don’t think so.”  I don’t want to think so. Either way, those voices comfort and inspire us to wonder and to remember that even the harshest of winter storms can inspire joy, a light heart, if only out of a sense of connection with our winged and furry friends. And the assurance they give us that those winter storms will eventually give way to spring.

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