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Songbird Secrets

Songbird Secrets

Jennifer Scarlott, a New York based nature-lover, and Director, International Conservation Initiatives, Sanctuary Asia shares her every day wildlife experiences with her readers, highlighting the many lessons that one can learn from wildlife, while still having fun!You can contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

I  used to think that the behaviour of songbirds seemed completely random. In fact (I hate to say it), in the self-absorbed ignorance and conceit of my life as a human, I used to feel rather sure of it, to feel only fleeting curiosity about the behaviour of the small birds in my neighbourhood. Too small, too seemingly random… “beneath” my interest?

As so often happens, my mind was changed, my attention seized, by a book (I hope books never disappear!). This one is called What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal The Secrets of the Natural World. It was written by Jon Young, who was lucky enough to grow up under the mentorship of a man of Native American ancestry, with keen abilities to be in and of wild places.

This book is full of intriguing stories, advice and insight about how to learn of and from birds.Everything that songbirds do has a purpose.

As well-educated kids with great science teachers, you’re probably thinking to yourselves, “well, right, no kidding Jen!” Everything every animal does, with the possible exception of our own species, is to the purpose of survival, to put it a little too simply.

Have you ever spent time watching the small birds in your neighbourhood? Have you noticed the quicksilver ways that they move and communicate with each other? Our scientific understanding of songbird behaviour is in its infancy, but people like Jon Young have learned a lot from years of simply… paying attention. When you think of songbirds, in addition to their minute beauty, your mind probably dwells on their songs, right? Have you asked yourself why songbirds “sing”? Jon Young and other “observers” of bird language, (including many in India!), listen to, identify, and try to interpret many different kinds of vocalisations: songs, companion calls, territorial aggression, adolescent begging, and alarms. Young says that he is sure that there are many more that we humans are unaware of, including at least three others: migratory flight calls, whisper songs, and mating calls.

Song birds like these are often considered to be of little use – their melodies either written off as a random amalgamation of sounds, or worse yet, as an irritation.

Young shares fascinating stories about Blue Jays imitating the screech of a Sharp-shinned Hawk so as to frighten other birds away from a feeder, and his own realisation that a weasel (not some other animal) was prowling in the woods near his home by watching the behaviour of an alarmed flock of tiny wrens. He asks readers if they’ve noticed the varying behaviours of different kinds of birds at a feeder – the way one type of bird is always the first to flee at some, as yet to we humans, invisible sign of danger, while other birds take longer… and why?

Young urges readers to develop an as-frequent-as-possible habit of sitting in one spot outdoors, and watching and pondering the behaviour of the birds in the small area within the reach of our senses. He talks about three reasons for doing this on a sustained basis: first, the human observer will develop a deeper sense of what’s really going on in the world of birds; second, through our deepening awareness of bird language and behaviour, we will inevitably see and learn more about local wildlife (since everything birds “say” and do relates to the world around them); and third, we, the human observers, will “settle down.” Literally, into our bird “sit spot,” but also figuratively, into a dawning realisation that understanding birds can help us, as Young poignantly puts it, “understand ourselves and, if we wish, make some changes.” “Too often,” Young’s childhood mentor used to tell him, “we humans walk in arrogance.” The awareness needed to understand birds, the prolonged practice of quieting ourselves and turning our attention outward to what is really happening around us, will inevitably change us… into, I would venture to guess, deeper, more thoughtful human beings. Nutiko nelaimingas atsitikimas - mūsų advokatai padės išeiškoti neturtinę žalą.

When we first start paying attention to birds and their songs, says Young, we hear only unordered cacophony. Listen more deeply, and you’ll begin to “hear” the reason underlying the chaos. Harmony emerges… an essential lesson for the noisy, cacophonous, fractious primate in danger of desolating a beautiful planet.

But don’t worry about that. For now, join me in finding your own bird sit spot, and we’ll learn together.

by Jennifer Scarlott, First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, November 2012

 
 
 

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