Article contributed by Kathleen Lockyer, occupational therapist and founder of RxOutside, as part of Audubon California's "Bridge to Nature" series.
Three months into our "Shelter in Place" order and my environmental bubble encompasses myself and two college-age daughters. We are bumping elbows and emotions in our 900 square feet home. Maniacal laughing and crying for no reason are abundant. There is a sink full of dishes. Our slightly neglected dog is now an over-loved emotional support hero, burying his head into our lap from sheer embarrassment at the amount of petting and cuddling he succumbs to daily.
Every flat surface in our house has explosions of paintbrushes and paper, material and sewing machines, beads, books, laptops. A guitar is perpetually in someone's hands, Zoom has become a verb, and we have finally made headway with the almost expired cans of beans, spaghetti sauce, and rice from the back of the kitchen cabinet.
I sit in our California backyard, under the silver-green leaves of a Pineapple Guava tree. Although we are surrounded by fences that separate us from other neighborhood yards, ours is a little oasis— with tall grass that we let grow as a bird habitat. There is a House Wren in the tree above me. She is calling for her companion.
I'm feeling blessed yet worried. My daughters and I have jobs on pause for what feels like an indefinite amount of time, while my boyfriend is an overworked electrical contractor. The House Wren calls for her mate, and her call disrupts my worried mind. "Chit Chit?" Are you there? Mate?
In the bird world, a companion call, or contact call, is a universal kind of communication birds share with their mates to determine if everyone is okay, a signal that all is well in our bubble. Songbirds keep tabs on the neighborhood Cat, the Fox, the Cooper's Hawk, and the many other constant threat's to their well-being. I listen more closely. The Wren's companion returns, "Chit! Chit!" Yes, I'm here.
She cries again, "Here?"
Companion, "Here. Right here."
Through the companion calls of our Wrens, my neighbor shouts from over the fence,
"Hey!" I respond.
"How's it going over there?"
"Well. We are all well. Feeling blessed to have this outdoor space. How are you?"
"Going a little crazy here all alone. Drinking too much. Playing a lot of guitar."
"Yeah. Us too!"
I think about my best friend who texted this morning,
"Hi. I miss you."
"Oh, I miss you too."
"See you soon?"
"Soon. I hope!"
Our human world isn't that different from the bird world. The bird communities use the back and forth chit chatter between two companions to determine an environment's tenure. One calls, "Chiit?" The other answers, "Chiit Chiit."
If the one that calls hears only silence, a quiet tension hangs in the air until their companion responds.
"Chit? Hey, you there?"
"Chit, chiit, hey you there? I'm freaking out over here wondering if you are okay?"
"Chiit, Chitt, Chiit. Sorry. Yeah, I'm here. I was picking through leaves and looking for bugs and didn't hear you. Sorry. Didn't mean to worry you!"
My two college kids are in the kitchen talking to each other, "So. What are you doing today?" One of them asks. The other one doesn't answer—Silence.
"Hey? The first one asks.
"Are you okay?"
Finally, the second one responds, "I don't know."
"Wanna take a walk or something?"
"Yeah. I guess. You want me to make some food?"
"Uhm. Yeah. Thanks."
Their conversation reminds me of the article I read yesterday that quoted researcher Robin Gurwitch, psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center. "We see [increased] depression and anxiety in all age groups, but in adolescence, it's on steroids," she says, and adds, "When kids look into the future now, they're looking at one that wasn't what they envisioned before..." (qtd. in Kluger, J.)
The back and forth conversation between my daughters sounds much like the increased desperation of the companion calls from a mate not answered. Hello? Someone? Are you out there?
Besides our basic needs of shelter, water, and food, we need our companion calls returned. In the book, “Social,” by author and researcher Matthew Lieberman, he states that, “To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others.”
I think about all of the opportunities I had with my daughters to develop this pattern of interaction or “reach out,” and a memory of years earlier comes to mind— My older daughter, then-four-years-old lay on the floor coloring. I was standing in the kitchen, multi-tasking dinner and a phone conversation, when her little voice called,
"Whaaaaaat? Honey? What IS it?"
"Nothing." She said, then added, "I just wanted you."
The wrens flit about my yard now, singing, hunting insects, and calling to each other. They make it look so easy to stay connected. A simple chit back and forth, as if keeping an invisible thread between them. They go about their business, getting things done, productive but not too busy to respond. They seem to prioritize their food gathering tasks, evading the neighborhood predators, and communicating with each other all at the same level of importance.
I remember dropping to my knees and embracing my daughter that day after she said, "Nothing. I just wanted you." I'd been busy. Too busy to sit and color with her. Too busy to take a walk. Too busy to step outside and fill buckets of water for us to pour from one container to the next together. Too busy to listen to birds with her. That same child is standing in the kitchen calling to her sister, Sister? Sister? Sister?
I can still hear her young voice almost as surely as I listen to the Wrens in the tree, Mama? She volleyed, Are you there? Although my voice answered, it was barely a thread of connection. So she kept calling, looking for a return to her volley, trying to grab the wisp of thread from the air.
The Wren has moved closer to me and is now sitting on the vine of a climbing rosebush, "Chiit," she says, but this time in a very soft way, a whisper almost. I close my eyes and wait. A muted response, "Chit," comes from another Wren that I can hear but can't see when I open my eyes. I close my eyes again and hear the call and response sequence, just as soft as the first time.
Then it changes,
The Chit gets a little louder. "Chit?"
Then louder. "CHIT?"
Until finally, the return comes, "Chiit. Chiit! Chitt!" I'm over here. What's happening?
Back in the day when my four-year-old daughter called Mama? It had been a quiet call at first. Mama? Her voice was soft but unwavering. Mama? I wonder how many times I missed her quieter calls for me, only to become frustrated with her more insistent and demanding MAMA!? I wonder how many times I've missed a child, friend, partner, or parents' call— too busy, too overwhelmed with the predation of life, job, bills, debt, remodeling a perfectly fine house, and so much more. Did they call and wait for a response that never came?
My dad, who lives alone since my mother died three years ago, calls me almost every morning. Sometimes I don't answer, but I eventually call back. When I don't, my Dad worries, Has something happened? I get a message, "Hey. Yeah. Uhm, just give me a quick call and let me know everything's okay." So I do, but I make it quick, "Just letting you know all is good. I'm busy, so I'll call ya later."
When he doesn't call me, I worry too. Is everything okay? I call him. He doesn't always answer. Twice I have phoned one of my brothers, who then calls him also. Once I have phoned the police to check on him. He was okay.
I think about all the ways my partner calls to me, a hand on a hip or a knee, a glance across a room, a smile, a text. Sometimes when I am working on my computer, he walks by and slides his hand across my shoulders. I meet his gesture with a glance and a smile. Did we learn this call and response from the birds a million years ago? Could our need for social interaction, for someone to answer our reach out, our calling, be from the need to know that maybe all is well in our bubble? That everything is right in our world? Or perhaps it is all not alright but that someone is with us, out there returning our call? Life was isn't meant to live alone; Life is a relational endeavor.
The Wrens under our Pineapple Guava tree today are like little bursts of song and sunshine, flitting about the yard, doing what science says they have always done. When did I stop paying attention to this back and forth between the birds? To my people?
The global pandemic has halted the busyness of my day. I am quiet. I am in a pause. I am listening, and in my listening, I can hear the softer calls. I can hear the meaning behind a simple "Chit?" Hello? Just checking for you. I hear it long before it becomes a voice of concern, or worry, or aggression. I learn that a gentle return, "Chit." Hey, I'm here. I hear you, allows a companion to relax— perhaps enough to make it to the next day.
My phone dings, and I look at it to see my boyfriend's text, "Hey Love. How's your day?"
The Wrens have gotten quiet now, and as I look to discover the reason, my daughter shouts from the other room, "Hey, Mom? Come with us! Let's go for a bike ride to the estuary and watch the Herons."
Especially now in the pandemic's isolation, I think, Oh! Thank goodness I gave them the birds!
After several moments of quiet, the Wrens back and forth banter resumes, and I exhale, Oh, few. Everything is okay enough. "Absolutely!" I call back to my daughters as I return a text to my boyfriend, "Blessed, Babe. I'm having a blessed day."
And then I add, "How bout you?"
The next time you go outside, listen for the first bird sound you hear. Then, listen to see if there is another bird nearby who "matches" that sound?
Don't hear anything yet? That's okay. Keep trying! Hearing is passive, but listening is active. The brain takes time to "tune into" or pay attention to new sounds. It may take a few tries to help your (or your child's) auditory processing system in their brain develop an "importance category" for bird sounds. But, once it tunes in, it will be harder to tune it out!
Try this exercise until you can hear a "back and forth" between two birds.
Kluger, J. "Insurance Claim Data Show How Much Teen Mental Health Has Suffered During the U.S. COVID-19." time.com, 3/4/21, https://time.com/5943896/covid-19-teen-mental-health/
Lieberman, Matthew. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Illustrated, Crown, 2014.
Kathleen Lockyer is an occupational therapist, founder of RxOutside (2016), co-founder of Outside Now 501c3 (2003)., and Director of Santa Lucia School, an independent k-8 school, where she implements her “Nature-Led Approach.”