Listening for bird language is the practice of slowing down and mindfully giving our attention to bird sounds, movements, and behaviors. When we tune into these patterns, we open a doorway into what’s happening in the world around us—and also within ourselves.
You could also think of this practice as “Mindful Birding” or maybe “Qualitative Birding,” in contrast with the checklist-focused “Quantitative Birding” so many of us have experienced on birding walks.
What does bird language look like? It’s a slower-paced, deeper dive than traditional birding. Without a checklist-focus, people can observe one or a few birds much more thoroughly, thereby discovering hidden depths and dramas within the woods, parks, shorelines, and other beloved places we frequent.
Here’s a contrasting example of a “Birding” group and a “Bird Language” group on two sides of a thicket, observing a catbird with very different results:
Birding: a group is walking along a path, scanning for sights and sounds and hoping to add to the diversity of their “list” for the day. As they round a corner, they spot a bird atop a dense thicket. The group moves closer and the bird flies away from them. The group leader quickly and loudly states: “Gray Catbird.” A few people scan the bird, a few write down the name and the leader moves on after 30 seconds, hoping to find a different species of bird to share with the group. No one discusses the vocalizations or body language of the catbird or what it was doing. The group moves along.
Bird Language: a group is sitting close to each other on benches (or in folding chairs) quietly listening to scratching on the ground inside a nearby thicket for about 4-5 minutes. Eventually, someone says, “I wonder what that bird is doing in there? Maybe feeding?” Another person says, “Maybe collecting nesting materials?” Then the bird vocalizes a “mew” sound and someone asks, “What do you think that sound means? Hey, it stopped scratching...” The pace and volume of the “mew” sound increases and someone says, “It feels like that bird is concerned about something.” A different person says, “Look, a couple of birds, maybe robins, just flew over really fast, making loud sounds. They seemed as if something scared them towards us. Is something coming?”
A minute later the bird language group can hear voices from afar, coming towards the thicket from the other side, which causes the ground-scratching bird to pop up into view, looking towards the approaching voices. In its bill is a large insect, which it swallows. “There it is, the ground-scratcher. It WAS eating!” Someone chimes in, “And now it’s looking toward that group on the other side of the thicket.”
The bird suddenly turns and flies low, directly over the bird language group, giving them a gorgeous view of the rusty underside and long dark gray-to-blackish tail of the bird. “Wow! What a gorgeous bird! Too bad it got spooked and flew off.” Someone asks, “is anyone familiar with that bird by name?” and then from the other side of the thicket, they hear a birder say, “Gray Catbird”, then a short pause and the sound of voices fading into the distance.
Can you feel the difference between these two experiences?
Bird language is a less stressful experience for birds than traditional checklist birding groups. Why? Mostly because the energy and intention of many birding groups can be intense and don’t give the birds much physical or energetic space, almost as if birders are “predator-like” in our goal to find and check off different species of birds.
In this story, the pacing of the birding group caused the robins to fly quickly overhead, making them much more likely to become food for a nearby predator that is waiting to capitalize on the disturbance caused by humans on the trail. On the other hand, giving out attention to bird language respects the space and pace of birds and puts the birds’ agenda before our own.
In fact, discerning the intent of other animals (or groups of birders, in this case) is vital to the survival of wild birds. Ground-feeding birds like chipping sparrows, for example, will treat the same cat differently depending on its intention. If the cat is hungry and in the mood to hunt, then the sparrows take no chance and fly up into low branches as soon as they detect the predatory feline presence. However, if the cat is full and in a lazy mood, then they’ll just hop away 10-20 feet, making way for the cat to pass.
In his book What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal Nature’s Secrets, Jon Young helps us learn how to slow down, watch, listen and feel what birds are telling us. Through the guidance of experienced facilitators, we can learn how to recognize and interpret patterns in bird sounds, movements and behaviors.
For example, a group of birders will sit quietly on the edge of a meadow, observing a flock of sparrows. When the vocal sound, body language or movements of those sparrows change, the birders ask, “what is this telling me?” and they look for specific cues they’ve been trained to observe that can indicate things like the exact type of predator sneaking through the yard (e.g. Housecat or Cooper’s Hawk).
Over time, those who practice bird language develop highly attuned senses and can pick up on the subtle language of nature that all the animals are speaking. Deep observation and curiosity leads to deep nature connection.
Remembering how to speak this language of nature fosters a sense of connection and belonging to the ecosystem. It helps remind us humans that we are part of an interconnected web of life. This fosters an ethic of care for the landscape around us.
Listening for bird language can be broken down into a few key practices:
- Mindful Observation: In bird language, our curiosity leads the way of connection and understanding. We emphasize curiosity over being “right,” as it makes us more open and receptive to learning.
- Refined Listening: There are clear patterns to bird sounds, which we can learn through some simple decoding. For instance, does the bird sound happy, mellow, angry, hungry or scared?
Jon Young breaks them down into the “Five Voices” of birds: Song, Contact, Aggression, Begging & Alarm. If we use the American Robin as an example:
- Song = “Cheer-y-up, Cheery-o”
- Contact = a mellow “Chut”
- Aggression = a louder “Tut-Tut!”
- Begging = “wheeee...wheee...wheee...” (often from a nestling or a quivering fledgling on a branch harassing a parent)
- Alarm = “Chee-Co-Co!!” or “Seeeeettt” (depending on the type of alarm and the appropriate response needed)
As we build understanding, we grow empathy for birds. We also begin to see ourselves as part of the natural world, connected to birds and landscapes. Bird language allows us to carry this with us anywhere we go, connecting to the birds to find peace and mindfulness.
As we practice bird language, we’re also improving our wellbeing, including reducing stress, lowering blood pressure and improving sleep. A recent study in the UK (Cox et al, 2017) found that birds around the home and in the neighborhood show great promise in preventative health care. Additionally, the researchers found that you don’t have to know the name of a bird in order to get the wellbeing benefits of being around them.
The practices utilized in bird language develop empathy towards birds well beyond traditional birding because we often practice this skill in one place, over and over, making connections to individual birds, families and flocks. This often expands to a deep connection to all nature, including plants, trees, birds, bugs, bird habitats, and our fellow humans. These deep connections often lead to conservation ethics and practices.
Finally, bird language is an inclusive practice because anyone, regardless of your home habitat, can do it in their own region, neighborhood or city block. You don’t even have to know the names of the birds.
So, next time you want to go birding, consider leaving the checklist at home, and the car keys on the counter. Instead, grab a chair and a cup of tea and head into the backyard to make deep, lasting connections to your local feathered friends.
To learn more about practicing bird language, visit: