What the Child Knows

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Listen to this beautiful excerpt from Jon Young’s What the Robin Knows.

“The two birds [cardinals] were exchanging a chip call every five seconds or so. Now, I have to bend the rules of time, because it would take a speed-reader longer to finish this paragraph than it took for the ensuing drama to unfold, which was about ten seconds, I estimated in immediate hindsight. The male to my right uttered a chip, and the female to my left did not reply in the accustomed time. This created tension immediately – and in the male, who issued a more insistent chip-chip, a companion call asking, What’s up? Then I heard his wings beating furiously as he headed toward me on his way to where the female had been feeding. At the same time, I caught a flash of brown to my left and just ahead. This was the female in sudden flight, and behind her was a sharp-shinned hawk closing fast. The female cardinal was heading for a wall of brush and vines, perhaps hoping to lose the hawk in this tangle. Just as the hawk was about to reach the female, the male burst onto the stage at a dead, bright red spring and flung himself right between his lady love and the hawk. It was a Superman-like maneuver – just amazing. Distracted, the sharpie faltered and swerved to pursue the male, but the male had too much velocity and a trajectory almost perpendicular to that of the other two birds. Even the sharpie, with his incredible turn-on-a-dime agility, couldn’t pull it off. The male escaped and continued in evasive flight to my left, along the wall of vegetation. He was gone in a split second. The female was back in the brush somewhere, not visible. The hawk banked, landed on a branch, peered left and right, gave up on the cardinals, and glided off in pursuit of other prey.”

This excerpt comes from within a chapter emphasizing the importance of recognizing what Young calls the “baseline” of bird calls, the chitter-chatter people like you and me take for granted in a well-populated forest and typically read as nonsense. Quite the contrary, Young says, whose careful study reveals something entirely different.

In the same book, Young reveals how, walking out of the forest one evening after leading a wilderness skills class, he heard a spotted towhee scratching its familiar scritch-scratch sound in the leaves, looking for food, followed by ten to twelve seconds of silence. Knowing the baseline of this bird to be a three or four second scritch-scritch-scritch followed by a three of four second silence, he took this behavior to be an alarm, but a subtle one. Given sufficient danger, a towhee, he says, will fly to a higher branch and give a wreeeannh alarm when fully agitated. This told Young that the bird, which remained on the ground, was only mildly concerned, and, coupled with the lack of alarm in the baseline of the birds in the surrounding area, made Young think the cause of the disturbance was another human nearby. It turned out to be exactly that, another instructor hiding in the shrubs nearby in an attempt to outwit or outmaneuver Young’s famously keen tracking skills. Not this time.

Imagine the subtlety of a man who recognizes the presence of an otherwise invisible human being simply because of a small delay in a tiny bird’s scratching pattern. To me, this is bordering on extra-sensory perception, but it’s perfectly real and Young’s books are full of examples of indigenous trackers still alive in the modern world who, he says, make his skills seem juvenile. That kind of awareness excites me.

And it’s not merely birds who are listening to bird language, Young says. It’s the raccoons, the mice, the squirrels, cougars and elk. To find out where those animals are, and what they’re doing, we have to listen. For millions of years, our ancestors did precisely that to help locate and hunt their own game, and to keep themselves safe. Our bodies inherited those skills, even if most of us no longer use them. If we took the time to pay attention, Young says, we’d realize that whether in our backyards or deep in the wilderness the birds are talking about us every day.

Imagine listening to your wife or husband that way, or your child.