Bird watching is trophy hunting (not killing, obviously.) It’s a competitive sport although birders don’t talk about that. It usually involves taking pictures (with a tripod, telescopic lenses and a sore back), checking off lists, and identifying exotic migrants—assuming you can identify that pesky eye ring or count the stripes on its tail feathers as your bird takes off.
In contrast, bird language is acquired close to home, no binoculars necessary, and is the ticket to the vast complex universe of the natural world.
The best birders (who know at least a restaurant level of Bird) spot their subjects by listening first and then they site it. What they see is a bird doing something, not idly strumming his vocal chords while he takes in the scenery.
Bird is the route to a deep understanding of the ways in which forest critters take account of one another as they conduct their everyday survival.
What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young holds out the hope that ordinary people studying very ordinary birds in a small defined neighbourhood, perhaps focusing on an area as small as 50 yards across and 20 feet high, (the territory of a small bird) can pick up the most ancient of languages, one that was undoubtedly crucial to our survival as hunters and gatherers and possibly fundamental to the development of the human brain.
Native Americans could spot advancing armies miles off by “bird plows”, a sudden sideways, and herd like exit from the bush of birds fleeing an unusual threat.
“Using the birds as a first alert greatly improved our odds of finding two wolves (without radio collars) in a million acres of wild country,” writes Young. “If the birds were busy eating grasshoppers in the cold morning we moved on, but if they were gathered low in the trees and acting somewhat skittish, we paused, because ravens gathered in a focused group could be protecting a carcass and keeping their eyes out for other nearby scavengers, including wolves.”
Birds operate on a very lean energy budget; of course all critters do, but birds especially, which puts a premium on their calibrating exactly the right amount of effort necessary to achieve a given result. A quick get away can be costly, even if successful, as the bird may succumb to exhaustion in the end anyway.
“Pell-mell flight might also put the flying sentinels in jeopardy of predators who have sized up the situation as a good wake-hunting opportunity and are moving in for the kill. Better to stay home and stay organized,” reasons Young.
Birds don’t just fly away at the sight of a cat. They judge from its behaviour whether it’s stalking, or moseying home to its canned fish and a cushion, and they have calls to match.
Birds have calls that distinguish among lowest of the low, the egg robbers, corvids, jays, raccoons, weasels, snakes, coyotes, wolves, and birds of prey, and whether these dangers are actually worth worrying about at any particular moment.
“A tense, stressed coyote moving faster than usual in her efforts to feed those whining pups back in the den will elicit a stronger set of alarms than the more relaxed coyote, maybe responsible only for itself, whose movements seems less anxious and stressed.”
Birds, because they have such complex vocalizations, acute eyesight and excellent vantage points (ground feeders excepted) from which to observe, are the inter- and intra species news broadcasters. And everyone else equally dependent on their own lean energy budgets are guided by the birds, (unlike the bounding labs tearing off through the underbrush with never a worry about their next meal.)
These opportunistic interdependencies constitute a complex society. Birds will squirm around in anthills hoping to annoy the insects that will then release formic acid and drive the lice from their feathers. Magpies follow deer because they kick up the dirt exposing insects. And herding animals are great sources of ticks and a free ride. Red-tailed hawks hang around highways, travelling along with the vehicles taking advantage of their noise to disguise their own.
Chickadees have some of the most complex alarm calls, matching the number of their “dee, dee, dees” to the level of threat, if sometimes straying from the truth.
“Chickadees sometimes produce false alarms, causing the gullible to fly away and leave that much less competition for food. This behaviour indicated that the chickadees can make fine distinctions between fake and real alarms.
“I’ve seen a chickadee sitting right in front of me—pumping away, with its bill wide open—and heard its call coming to me from over there, many feet away, in midair: nothing less than ventriloquism. In my experience this phenomenon occurs when the predator is a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk.”
Bird alarms can also have an unintended effect. “Hearing an alarm for another predator, an accipiter [hawk] glides in that direction, knowing that the birds are distracted by the first predator, making the second predator’s odds just a little better.”
Meanwhile back in the nest, the squawking of chicks is a dinner bell for corvids, peregrines, cats, raccoons and foxes. “Establish a post near a hawk’s nest during nesting season, and you will be astonished by how often the parents fly in with a songbird to feed their young. I’ve watched a Cooper’s hawk deliver a bird to one of its own two or three chicks three times within half an hour.”
Jon Young’s book is an impressive inspirational guide to getting to know the most common backyard species, and he claims you don’t need binos. By choosing what he calls a sit spot and recording what you hear, including truck noises, airplanes, slamming doors, barking dogs, sitting there quietly every day, preferably early in the morning so not too far from home, you will eventually, with help from audio guides and a few online lessons, understand the patterns of behaviour of individual birds in your sit spot universe.
You’ve first got to figure out what the baseline, normal situation is, the dimensions of a given bird’s territory with its food sources, hiding places and vantage points. You’ll learn how to avoid taking deliberately quiet steps that could be interpreted as stalking behaviour, while also not causing unnecessary noise.
You’ll learn about the vocalizations: songs, companion calls, male-to-male aggression, adolescent begging and alarm. Understanding the baseline will tell you what the quiet means. “If something alerts one towee, it will freeze and a split second later so will all the others. Then they may casually move—almost fade—into denser, safer cover. No noise whatsoever, no big production, but they are gone. It could be a minute or more before the song sparrows look up.”
If you find a nest, back off quietly so as not to attract the attention of predators. Sit with your back to the brush so you can hear anyone coming.
We may not have any need to anticipate an advancing cavalry charge coming down our driveway, but learning Bird, however imperfectly, will attach us more to the natural world and that’s a good thing.
Jon Young’s website, offers Bird Language Basics, a free email course, and DVDs.