I heard it from a Little Birdy – Kimberly Magee
I heard it from a Little Birdy
By Kimberly Magee
I have recently learned something about birds—they are incessant gossipers. I started my summer oblivious to the fact that the feathered creatures were nattering about me to every living thing within earshot as soon as I stepped out the front door: “Here comes that girl again—watch it! She’s walking fast today!” Now you might think that’s vain—why would they only be twittering about me? Well, they’re not. They gossip about everything, whether man or beast. Bird gossip is something that Jon Young coined as Bird Language—inter- and intraspecies communication, or as one of my instructors Lee Burton says, “It’s animal language.”
I spent my break between the spring and summer 2017 semesters camping out at the Ordway-Swisher Biological Station with Dr. Katie Sieving, a professor at UF, and Lee Burton, naturalist and bird language extraordinaire, learning how to reconnect with an ancient skill embedded in us. I learned how to become a participant in nature rather than a spectator, typical of hikers, bird watchers, and even researchers, by lowering my sphere of disturbance—quietly strolling, careful of where I placed my feet, so as not to be a cause of alarm. Before we can begin to truly understand and be in tune with the natural world, we have to slow down, reconnect with our basic senses, feel the world around us and open our ears and really listen.
That’s when I started to pick up on the local gossip. Armed with a couple of bird apps, iBird and Merlin Bird ID, to help me translate what I was hearing, I started to recognize the songs of several species—the great-crested flycatcher, northern cardinal, tufted titmouse, summer tanager, and red-headed wood pecker—then their alarm calls, aggravated chips and whistles that put even you, a listener, on edge. It was overwhelming at first, but then I learned about the patterns birds make. It’s not random behavior or isolated instances that happen to occur at that time and place; it became recognizably consistent. There’s a science behind “a little birdy told me,” and I began to recognize the alarm sounds and behaviors that alert me to an accipiter hawk just landed in a nearby tree or the cacophony of chatters that surround an unwelcomed owl.
Gossip in human circles is often characterized as “idle”, silly rumors that hold little truth. For birds, however, gossip could mean the difference between life and death. It’s dependable as a tool for understanding what’s happening beyond us in the trees. Birds have two basic modes: baseline behavior and alarm. Baseline behavior is simply birds going about their business, that lovely singing outside your window, but when something happens, such as a nearby screech of a Cooper’s hawk, birds will immediately chatter reports about what they see—gossip.
Bird language is more than simply observing bird behavior; it’s becoming aware of the natural world around you and participating in it, not merely spectating. The only way for gossip to work for you is if you are part of the system. In today’s society we see nature as something to go out into and come back from because we forget that we are still part of it. This course gave me a richer connection as a wildlife major to the realm that I am passionate about. Now, when I take my dog out, my ears are tuned to pick up on the constant conversation: the Tufted Titmouse starts on about the Blue Jays, shifty as ever, that just moved in on the branch two down from where the Chickadees are and the Cardinals toss in their two cents about how my dog should do his business farther down the side of the yard where they don’t eat as often.
Resources for more information:
If you want to delve into bird language yourself, try visiting Jon Young’s site at http://birdlanguage.com/ and learn more from the expert himself. You might even consider taking the course, Ancient Bird Language for Modern Naturalists with Dr. Katie Sieving and Lee Burton. It’s an experience that will change the way you view the world outside your front door.
Further Reading: Ancient Bird Language and the Students who Learn it