Mind over Chatter – Brian R. Stokes

Figure 1: Me, diagramming bird behavior from one of our ‘bird sits’ by a creek

Everyone talks to birds.  Few understand birds.  Bird enthusiasts can imitate calls, pish, or play recorded calls over speakers to attract birds.  Those unaware of our avian friends communicate physically, sending unknown threats and signals to birds.  A runner may startle a group of sparrows feeding on the ground, sending them into nearby foliage for cover.  An emerging group of naturalists are tuning in to these reactions, rediscovering an ancient language that was a vital key to our ancestors’ survival.  While the title “Bird Language” may be new to you and I, this ancient practice has been perfected by indigenous people across the world.  Hunter-gatherers listen to and watch birds to see where animals are moving in their surroundings or to monitor threats (like a stalking tiger…).  A key to tuning into bird language is being mindful and aware of natural surroundings.  To tune into this natural language’s sound, we must first tune out modern society’s white noise.

I recently took part in a course on bird language (Ancient Bird Language for Modern Naturalists; co-taught by Lee Burton and Katie Sieving, Dept. of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida).  A daily activity we practiced was a “bird sit”; as a group we’d move into a natural space and sit for about an hour, watching and listening to what happened – specifically the birds.  In these sits we had to be silent and still, focusing on our surroundings.  It felt very similar to meditation when the birds were relaxed, but when threats like hawks moved into the area, the birds’ tension electrified the air for me too.  To understand the dynamics of what was happening we were encouraged to both listen and think through events we observed, but also to use our gut instincts (like sensing “tension in the air”).  Repeatedly we saw birds performing definable actions in response to natural events.  A common theme was how small birds like flycatchers and titmice (prey for hawks) reacted when predators were near.  Some birds would stop singing or calling and stay as still as possible (silence is often a signal for alert in the bird world).  Some birds ‘ditched’ – darting from perches into deep cover.  Others would vocalize rapidly from safe spots.  A quiet mind was essential for being able to hone into these behavioral signals in order to inform my own gut-intuitions.  At the same time the animals have been doing this all along, and as I began to listen I became like them – looking, listening, absorbing – existing.

Figure 2: A surprisingly friendly little guy willing to tolerate me (a marmot in Denali National Park)

This class led me to think about some of the more amazing interactions I’ve had with animals and nature.  One that comes to mind was a time a friend and I walked through the woods near my home after a particularly bad storm.  We were looking at a tree fall in silence, walking without purpose.  My friend stopped, I followed suit and looked up.  We saw a scene reminiscent of a Disney film, a white tailed doe and its fawn drinking from a large puddle.  Next to them a pair of cottontail rabbits feeding.  At the point we stopped walking we were about ten feet from the fawn.  I remember the moment feeling still and quite, it was one of the first times I felt connected to nature.  A few seconds later the doe looked at us and slowly led its fawn away, as if we’d agreed not to bother one another.  Had I known what I’ve learned now, I’d have been more tuned into the baseline (or non-alarmed, calm) sounds of the birds near the deer.  Birds talk about us all the time letting each other know whether a blundering jogger or a curious, calm, attentive person is coming. On this day, the deer were not worried about me. They must not have been alarmed, but rather going about their business in what I now know to call ‘baseline’ behaviors.

More recently I was hiking alone in the back country of Denali National Park; just finishing a trek across one of the hundreds of alpine ridges, hoping to get a better view of the peak of the mountain.  As I approached the top of a crossing ridge, I had a feeling that I needed to look to the other side of the ridge; to see something coming.  I was greeted by a peregrine falcon gliding up the slope and crossing over the ridge to dive out of sight.  Thinking back, I could have been tuned into how the marmots had seemed to disappear – they would certainly be worried about a peregrine.  Both of these moments I was without expectation or intent, which probably allowed my senses to break through into my awareness. I simply felt lucky to experience what I did in these moments, but maybe I was tuned in to the animals around me.  Thinking to similar moments when I felt connected, they all lacked any kind of intentional desire. When I go to Sweetwater Wetlands Preserve (a popular natural area for birding in Gainesville, FL), I get better sightings when I forget my camera and am simply there to walk and think.  I see now that the lack of directed attention can open me up for better mindful participation in nature. Directed attention is, after all, what hunting predators use to kill, and what photographers use to ‘capture’ the perfect shot.

Figure 3: At the base of one of the peaks I climbed across from Denali peak

According to U.C. Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center, mindfulness is defined as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”  I hope to be able to use this state of mind and ‘bird sits’ as a tool in future professional work, and also in my personal life as a part of my own enjoyment of nature.  Its applications are endless in field work within conservation. Bird language can be used to find animals based on birds’ characteristic reactions to them, and can be used to tune into what’s happening at any time in one’s surroundings; a useful trick no matter where you work.  Though it’s hard to conduct field research without specific intentions, it’s possible to quiet the mind anytime to focus outside of specific tasks and, thereby, learn more.  After all most of us working with wildlife didn’t choose this field of study just to trudge, measure, and perform endless tasks that disturb animals, but because we love animals and want to be connected to nature.  Hopefully, what I learned can help me blend relaxation, mindfulness, and renewal within my work milieu and have a better outcome moment to moment.

Photo credits: Figure 1 — Katie Sieving © 2017; Figures 2 & 3 Brian R. Stokes © 2017

Resources for more information:

Jon Kabat-Zinn. “What is Mindfulness?” University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Accessed online, May 24, 2017. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/gg_live/science_meaningful_life_videos/speaker/jon_kabat-zinn/what_is_mindfulness/.

To learn more about the subject of bird language go to birdlanguage.com to see information from experts who teach it.

A great resource to get started with learning bird language and how to do your own ‘bird sits’ is “What the Robin Knows”, by Jon Young. Available as an ebook (with embedded audio).

Further Reading: Ancient Bird Language and the Students who Learn it