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Companion audio files are available at www.hmhbooks.com/whattherobinknows
A lifelong birder, tracker, and naturalist, Jon Young is guided in his work and teaching by three basic premises: the robin, junco, and other songbirds know everything important about their environment, be it backyard or forest; by tuning in to their vocalizations and behavior, we can acquire much of this wisdom for our own pleasure and benefit; and the birds' companion ...
Companion audio files are available at www.hmhbooks.com/whattherobinknows
A lifelong birder, tracker, and naturalist, Jon Young is guided in his work and teaching by three basic premises: the robin, junco, and other songbirds know everything important about their environment, be it backyard or forest; by tuning in to their vocalizations and behavior, we can acquire much of this wisdom for our own pleasure and benefit; and the birds' companion calls and warning alarms are just as important as their songs.
Birds are the sentries—and our key to understanding the world beyond our front door. Unwitting humans create a zone of disturbance that scatters the wildlife. Respectful humans who heed the birds acquire an awareness that radically changes the dynamic. We are welcome in their habitat. The birds don't fly away. The larger animals don't race off. No longer hapless intruders, we now find, see, and engage the deer, the fox, the red-shouldered hawk—even the elusive, whispering wren.
Deep bird language is an ancient discipline, perfected by Native peoples the world over. Finally, science is catching up. This groundbreaking book unites the indigenous knowledge, the latest research, and the author's own experience of four decades in the field to lead us toward a deeper connection to the animals and, in the end, a deeper connection to ourselves.
"Don’t tell lifelong birder Jon Young that robins are boring. He can sit still in his yard, watching and listending for the moment when robins and other birds no longer perceive him as a threat. Then he can begin to hear what the birds say to each other, warning about nearby hawks, cats, or competitors. Young’s book will teach you how you, too, can understand birds and their fascinating behaviors." - BirdWatching
"A sophisticated guide for amateur bird watchers and a door-opener for newbies." - Kirkus
"Though primarily geared toward birders and naturalists rather than lay readers, this passionate instruction manual offers enjoyable anecdotes." - Publishers Weekly
WHAT THE ROBIN KNOWS
ONE EARLY SPRING DAY when I was a teenager and already keenly interested in birds, I was scouting the vast salt marshes of southern New Jersey, and I saw a ruff. A ruff! This wading bird (considered a sandpiper) wasn’t supposed to be on the North American continent at all, but there it was, fresh in from Europe or perhaps even Asia. That was an exciting moment, and so was my teenage discovery of the scissor-tailed flycatcher and the snowy owl, both way out of their respective ranges, and the very rare golden-winged warbler. I went to the trouble of identifying those unexpected birds because I identified every bird I saw and heard. If I couldn’t do so on the first encounter, I went back the next day, and the next. If I heard a sound from a bird I hadn’t heard before, I grabbed my binoculars and went searching until I found the source—or left defeated, but determined to find it at the next opportunity. In May, when the warblers migrated across New Jersey over the course of just three or four peak days, I was out there aggressively trying to sort them out—fifteen or so species at my hangout, as well as the forty others that breed in New Jersey. At Rutgers, where I studied anthropology and natural history, I was probably the first one to sign up for the annual one-day bird count that began in the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge—a major point along the Atlantic Flyway in southern New Jersey—and concluded at Helyar Woods near the campus. Success for our van full of varied birders began that day before dawn with a singing Chuck-will’s-widow and concluded after nightfall with an eastern screech-owl. That very long day’s scouring yielded ninety-six species. While that may not be so impressive to some really good birders, it was my best day up to that point. I was eighteen years old.
I’ve had a lot of great birding moments in North America, the Hawaiian Islands, Europe, and Africa, and I’ve drawn solid lessons from them, but this fact remains: the American robin in my yard has much more to teach me as I sit quietly beneath a tree first thing each morning (with my binoculars on my lap only rarely these days). For one thing, this bird is so handy. For another, it’s one of the most expressive of all birds, vocally and in its body language. Was the robin driven into the tree by something in the thicket, or was it drawn up by curiosity (which is to say, mild alarm)? If I know this bird, I know the answer. I know when there’s a cat in the vicinity. I know when there’s a dog, not a cat, in the vicinity. Of course, the robin also advises me about what seems to be its greatest fear: the deadly accipiters winging furtively through the neighborhood. Likewise for the song sparrows, even though they’re virtually invisible to most folks walking around the neighborhood (song sparrows, not house sparrows). These elusive little brown shadows that bustle on the brown earth at the sides of the yard—shreep shreep shreep—then hop to the top of the bush (almost always the top), flip their wings, flip their tails, peer down intently—shreep shreep shreep. They also know all about the cat and the dog and the sharp-shinned hawk. For learning bird language, song sparrows are great allies.
Is a junco hanging around this morning? When feeding, this small gray bird favors the shadowy patches of open ground that match its coloration perfectly. If I haven’t really engaged my wide-angle “owl” vision (pretty much the opposite of narrow-angle binocular vision), if I’m not calm and quiet enough to detect subtle movements and hear subtle sounds, this modest creature will always get the best of me and remain undetected. I may unwittingly step on its saucer-size, carefully woven nest of rootlets, moss, pine needles, and grass. So it stands to reason that juncos are masters of subtlety: any songbird that feeds on the ground and often nests on the ground, with danger therefore a constant companion, had better be wary. Sometimes I think the deer have the juncos in their front pockets. When one of these little birds finally bursts off the ground and flies away, flashing its dark gray and white tail pattern, the deer’s huge ears—veritable radar dishes—swivel instantly in that direction. For them, the tiny twittering alarm must be like a screaming siren.
Robins? Sparrows? Juncos? Boring! I’ve heard this lament from the occasional first-day student, but I’ve never heard it from a third-day student. It just doesn’t happen, because the complaint is so wrong, and it doesn’t take anyone long to understand why. When we really see and hear and begin to understand these and other birds, the revelations are fun, enthralling, even vital.
My name for the study of birds’ behavior and accompanying vocalizations is “deep bird language,” and I believe—and will attempt to demonstrate in these pages—that it’s the key to understanding both the backyard and the forest. Here’s a little demonstration of how it works. (I’d put this in the “fun” category.) I was meeting some people at a new mentoring center in California. A board member was showing me around the facility, about which everyone was justifiably proud. In the main part of the building, a converted suburban house, the two of us were in a backroom that had a sliding glass door opening onto a backyard and swimming pool. Through this door, I spied a small brown bird on the ground right outside, helping itself to something trapped in a spider web. As I edged closer, I realized that these were baby spiders in their own web, and the bird was plucking them up, one by one, with its long curved bill, as effective for this job as a pair of tweezers. When I got too close to the glass door, the bird, a wrentit, hopped off and went to ground at the base of an overgrown hedge only a few feet away. If it raised an alarm call at that moment, I could not hear it through the glass door, with some ambient sound coming from another room and my host speaking continuously as he pointed to photographs and told me stories of this place. I enjoyed the stories and was quite engaged, even if my attention seemed elsewhere.
Perched in a nearby tree was a robin, singing away. I couldn’t hear the song, but seeing its head flip this way and that—its mouth open, its throat moving, its body relaxed—I knew the bird was singing (listen to audio file 1, for example). I turned back to the wrentit, and just as I did, it flew up five feet, something over waist height. Now it was almost in my face, a few feet away. I could barely hear the chut! alarm, but I could see the pumping tail. (The alarm call is in audio file 3.) This was the same bird that had retreated from me a few moments earlier, so I concluded that something else had startled it even more. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the robin had quit singing and was rigid except for its tail, which was now also pumping in alarm. Let’s see ... two alarmed birds in a suburban yard, one of them a ground dweller who has jumped up five feet—not ten, not fifty, but five. When I tell this story to a lay audience and ask for guesses about the cause of the alarm, everybody knows the answer.
On the scene, however, when I turned to my new friend and said, “Hey, there’s a cat coming,” he didn’t know what to make of my prediction. He hadn’t seen what I’d seen. Frankly, he was in a completely different frame of mind at the moment.
“A cat’s coming. Look!” I pointed down to the ground outside the glass door, where the cat would surely slink past shortly. When it did a few seconds later, my friend’s jaw dropped, but only because he hadn’t been following the story outside. Any thoughts about my psychic powers were erased by my real-world explanation of what had happened between the wrentit, the robin, and the cat.
There’s nothing random about birds’ awareness and behavior. They have too much at stake—life and death. Nor does random luck determine who among us has really close encounters with them and the other animals. As cosseted humans who have lost much of our sensory keenness, we are at a great disadvantage, but we can do much better. The birds’ language can be loaded with meaning for us as well, if only we pay close enough attention. We have ears; we can tune in, too. If we understand the birds, we can meet just about any animal we want. Without this understanding, many well-meaning seekers find the fox only when she’s running away or leaping across the midnight road in the glare of the headlights. I’d much rather find her lying on a mossy bed in dappled sunlight in the early morning, lazily licking her paws, grooming herself, and gazing over the landscape with soft eyes, ears angling this way and that as she picks up and listens to the nuances carried by the wind. This fox is tuned in to the tapestry of bird song on all sides. The animals know the importance of this language, and they listen to it. This is how they learn about us, and the birds’ alarms give them so much advance warning of our approach that they can choose the manner and timing of their own retiring departure. Only rarely do they actually have to run away.
We are often (usually, to be honest) a jarring, unaware presence in the world beyond the front door. Even when we’re “bird watching,” looking for different species—in many cases for particular species—there can be a sense in which we’re hunting. If we hear the call of a black-throated green warbler and want to have a look at it, we more or less ignore the other birds, so intent are we on locating that beautiful warbler. The robin may rebuke our sudden incursion, the chipmunk may chip at us, the squirrel may race up the tree and wave its tail, but we’re only peripherally aware of these messages, if at all. (The robin’s agitation call is in audio file 2; examples of chipmunk alarm calls are in audio file 66 [terrestrial alarm] and number 68 [alarm near hole].)
If we’re in bird language mode, however, we’re moving with a whole different frame of mind and venturing into another realm of awareness and intention and curiosity. We’re holding multiple questions in mind simultaneously. We’re not focused on a single species. We’re monitoring several species consciously and perhaps quite a few others unconsciously. We don’t have “hunting” intentions. We have diffuse awareness, curiosity, perceptions, and questions. We’re always aware of the ripples that we are creating as we go. What is the robin’s first alarm call? What is the junco’s? Ground predator or aerial predator? Are these alarms for me, for that orange and white cat who’s been hanging around the past couple of days, or for something else? Or maybe we have the opposite circumstance. At this time of morning on a calm, sunny spring day, there should be much more vocalizing and activity over in that diverse edge habitat. Two days ago, those trees and hedges were buzzing with multiple species. Why not now? How “big” is the silence in that area? Does it extend from ground to canopy, or are the grosbeaks up in the treetops as vocal as ever? Although we can see in only one direction at a time, when we’re in bird language mode, we’re hearing information from all directions all the time. The experience is multidimensional and involves many different senses. We’re walking carefully, slowly, stopping and looking (but not sneaking, which fools no one out there), adopting a relaxed body posture that reflects a relaxed, receptive brain, not a hunting brain.
One of the first pleasant tasks for anyone interested in the methodology of bird language is to select a private place among the birds to visit as often as possible. It may be in the forest, the suburban or urban park, or the backyard. Regardless, it will be the main venue for figuring out what’s going on, for connecting the dots, for gathering the stories of the birds and their context. So I call it simply the “sit spot,” but it could be called the “medicine area,” in reference to the depth of connection and understanding one can absorb and gain. In this book, it merits a chapter of its own. In your sit spot, it’s not as important to know every bird by its scientific name as it is to know that that robin over there is an individual like you and me. Let’s call him Bill, the male who owns this territory. Consorting with him this year is Sally. What happened to Betty, who had that very distinctive brown mark on one side? She was with Bill for the past two seasons. She’s gone now; that’s all we know. How long will this new mate last? What about Bill himself? That remains to be seen. (The names may be silly. The point is not. You, too, can attain such knowledge in your sit spot, should you so desire.)
Thus my two main subjects in this book:
What’s really going on in the world of the birds?
How we can access that world through our awareness of deep bird language so that we can also see more wildlife?
Am I a “bird whisperer”? No, but I listen to their whispers—and their songs and companion calls and alarm calls—very closely. I watch their behavior very closely. If you’re a student of bird language, this degree of observation becomes almost automatic. You develop new resources with and for your brain. This approach only makes sense, because, after all, which is older, our language or their language? The sectors of our brain that can understand their language are deeper than the sectors that manage our own. Add up all the accumulated experience and knowledge and input from these ancient yet newly discovered instincts, and you end up with “gut feelings” of uncanny accuracy. That venerable saying “A little bird told me” takes on a whole new meaning. You may just feel in your gut that a certain alarm call is due to a raccoon coming through—nothing else, definitely a raccoon. You don’t know why you have this hunch, but you do, so you go out and check, and there goes that masked bandit. Such feats of the “adaptive unconscious” are the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. They are manifest in many fields. A basic knowledge of bird language will produce many fascinating examples.
Introduction: What the Robin Knows xiii
A Cacophony of Harmony 1
In the Beginning Is the Song 19
More Cacophony of Harmony 28
The Sit Spot 48
An Alarm for Every Occasion 80
They’re All in This Together 99
A Shape for Every Occasion 119
From Collision to Connection 164
Appendix A: Learning Bird Language 183
Appendix B: Accompanying Audio 199