What I Hear When I Go Birding by Ear

In This Issue

Notes: What I Hear When I Go Birding By Ear · In Other Words: Robin Wall Kimmerer: Science Needs More Wisdom, Not More Data · News: Why I Was MIA Last Week; CW Website Update · Postscript: Mourning Doves & Engineers

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What I Hear When I Go Birding by Ear

Despite low vision, I spent my teens birdwatching. What was I really looking for?

One of my favorite things about spring is the morning chorus of the songbirds—all those voices! Do you ever wonder what they’re going on about? The ornithologists say they’re sending love letters; or, alternatively, maybe they’re staking out their territory, lawyer-like. And poet Mary Oliver supposes the wren singing at her back door might be praying.

Sometime in my early teens, I started birding, which in retrospect surprises me because my uncorrected vision was just shy of legally blind. (I didn’t get glasses until I was eighteen, which is another interesting story.)

I don’t remember what got me started with this hobby, but I do remember being quite serious about it for most of my teens. I picked up a copy of the Peterson Field Guide and a decent pair of binoculars. Someone bought me a subscription to a birding magazine. And I started a “life list”—a birdwatcher’s record of the birds he or she has identified—in a blue binder. I lost it somewhere over the years, so I couldn’t tell you much about it, other than it eventually topped one hundred birds.

Thirty-odd years later, I can’t help wondering how I could have ever identified more than one hundred different species of birds, as bad as my eyes were. Did I imagine all those sightings? Did I make them up?

But the way I remember it, I came by each of those sightings honestly. Some would have been easy, even for someone with poor eyesight. The American robin is the only bird that I know who hops across a green lawn, tilting its head as it hunts worms; and even on a tree limb, that bright red-orange breast is a dead giveaway. Nuthatches walk headfirst down the trunks of pine trees in a spiral. Turkey vultures have a distinctive flight silhouette, their wide wings sticking straight out like long paintbrushes rather than swept back like a raptor’s. I’ve confused a blue heron with a snowy egret before, from a distance; but a pair of binoculars quickly sorts out the difference. Red-wing blackbirds have that distinctive flash of red and yellow on their shoulder, and their kong-ka-ree calls sound like nothing else. The chickadee calls its own name—hard to go wrong there.

And house sparrows aren’t exactly shy, swarming our feeder like a gang of bikers pulling up to a bar at happy hour. You know them by their brawling, rowdy racket.

I probably managed to identify half the birds on my list this way—by behavior, profile, or some other “broad” clue. But what about all those “little brown birds” (LBBs)—the dozens of small songbirds whose speckled brown, white, and black coloring are tough for even veteran birders to tell apart?

Here’s another question: Why was I birding at all? What was the attraction for my lanky, gangly, teenage self? I don’t know. I never thought about it then, and I can only guess at the answer now. Some philosophers these days talk about the phenomenon of “species loneliness”—the sadness that comes when we lose our natural connection with other living beings. Maybe the birds were a partial salve to my teenage loneliness.

Or maybe it was nothing more than delight that drew me to the woods and marshes.

A wild bird is a gift. Imagine walking into the woods and finding that, here and there, someone has placed miniature works of colorful art, framed. Imagine walking through a country field to discover flutists standing at every fifth fencepost, playing some complicated melody. Imagine sitting in the bleachers on a Friday evening as ballerinas dance across the outfield, long-sleeved robes trailing behind them as they swoop low over the green grass. This is what birds offer us: a natural art and music, dancing across the world. Maybe the faeries of old stories are nothing more than birds, dressed up and anthropomorphized.

These days I’ve given up binoculars in favor of a smartphone outfitted with a bird song identification app. It’s great. Slowly, I’m learning to identify birds by their calls and songs, and once again I find my world populated by creatures whose beauty seems to be an embarrassingly extravagant generosity.

The other day I walked down to the lake with my twelve-year-old to release a mouse we’d trapped in the house.

“Do you hear that bird? That’s a phoebe,” I said. We walked a little farther. “And that’s the song of a robin—and that, too, even though it sounds so different.”

“Why is an owl hooting in the morning?”

“That’s not an owl. That’s a mourning dove.”

“Oh, because it sings in the morning!”

I didn’t bother to correct him; we were on to the next bird—one of the red-winged blackbirds that are so ubiquitous this time of year.

A third (and final) question: What am I trying to do here, teaching my twelve-year-old to identify bird songs?

Birds live in the deep background for many people; if they hear them at all, what they hear is random, if sometimes pleasant, noise. But those with the patience to listen hear something else—a conversation, as it were. If it were only a conversation between different individuals of the same species, then we’d only have the pleasure of eavesdropping. But on some level, when I hear the robin singing outside my window (as I do now, writing this), I hear another living creature on God’s green Earth “speaking” to me.

In the second Genesis creation story, God made the animals to be companions for the first man, because it was “not good for the man to be alone.” It is true that the man found his most suitable companion in the first woman, but her presence didn’t revoke the status of the animals (and plants!) as boon companions. Maybe, then, what I’m trying to do for my son is to bring him into this cross-species “conversation.” It is good for us to know these companions; when we do, we’re not quite so alone. And maybe initiating my son into this conversation is my way of passing along the gift of these remarkable creatures.


Robin Wall Kimmerer: Science Needs More Wisdom, Not More Data

I have a new book to add to my list of favorites: Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (affiliate link: Amazon). Someday I might write a longer review, but for now I’ll just bookmark my deep appreciation for the unexpected beauty and wisdom of this book. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a botanist, and a poet, and in Braiding Sweetgrass she brings all three of these strands together.

If the subtitle implies that she’s imparting nothing more than a mashup of indigenous and scientific knowledge about plants, then it’s inadequate. The gift of this book is the way she brings the best elements of indigenous wisdom to bear on the scientific worldview in a way that is both healing and hopeful. In this collection of personal stories and essays, she makes a strong case that science isolated from ethical, spiritual, and aesthetic wisdom is broken, killing both us and the planet. “It is not more data we need for our transformation,” she says. “It is more wisdom.”

This is refreshing. Often, talk about how to address the environmental crisis focuses on policy solutions. We need better policies, but Kimmerer is right to go deeper; better policies are hard to come by in the absence of wisdom.

And the wisdom that she advocates, while rooted in the traditions of indigenous North Americans, is so fundamental as to be universal. Her spiritual concerns are with gratitude, for instance, reinforced and deepened by ritual; and respect, and relationship, and reciprocity, and humility—values cherished by all the world religions, including Christianity.

Most of all, she encourages us to see the living things of the world not so much as “resources” to be extracted, but as fellow travelers on planet Earth who deserve some measure of respect. They are our “elders” by reason of having preceded us here, and they will teach us how to live well, if we have the humility to listen. (In one of her more humorous essays, Kimmerer describes taking an ecology class on a six-week-long expedition that included a “shopping” trip to a marsh that the students dubbed “Walmarsh.” What started as a joke led to good insights about the difference between getting what you need at Walmart and getting what you need in a more direct, reciprocal relationship with the land.)

Time and again as I read Braiding Sweetgrass, I was struck by the concordance between Kimmerer’s language and the language of certain Christian mystics—or even the pope’s recent encyclical, Laudato si: “In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.’”

 I listened to the audiobook edition, and I was glad I did; ecological writing, especially these days, can come across as strident and preachy. But Kimmerer narrates the book herself in a voice that is warm, tinged with laughter, and friendly.

Mark my words: Braiding Sweetgrass will be a classic on the order of Silent Spring or A Sand County Almanac or The Unsettling of America. It’s so good, I want to listen to it again. Maybe I’ll persuade my family to listen with me on our upcoming trip across the country.


Why I Was MIA Last Week; CW Website Update

If you missed last week’s edition of this newsletter, it’s not because it ended up in your spam folder. My goal has always been to publish this newsletter on Sunday, not midweek, and I decided to skip a week in order to get back on track.

Much of my writing time in the past two weeks has been focused on business clients of one stripe or another. I’ve dipped a toe into the SEO content writing world. I’m also continuing to talk with a large Catholic organization about developing family resources for their members. Jim Allaire and I also continue the slow process of migrating Catholicworker.org to a new platform. The directory of active Catholic Worker communities is one of the most important parts of the website, and it takes me five to ten minutes to publish each listing. We have more than forty listings ready to go, with another one hundred and forty left. It’s a bit of a slog, but also fascinating to see the sheer diversity of how people have come together to live out the Catholic Worker charism of taking personal responsibility for living out the Works of Mercy. With luck, we’ll be able to roll out the new website in July, at which point I hope that we can bring some of these communities’ stories to the platform.


Mourning Doves & Engineers

While I was looking up the correct spelling of mourning doves (“Is it morning or mourning?”), I stumbled upon this interesting video from the Cornell Ornithology Lab.

I have to admit, mourning doves have never made my list of favorite birds. Their song is simple, they’re not dramatic aerialists, and their coloration is on the drab side. But after watching this video, I have a little more respect for this common visitor to suburban neighborhoods. Did you know, for instance, that they make their distinctive cooing call not through their beak, but through the skin of a puffed-up throat sack? No wonder they sound so much like a woodwind instrument. Another fun fact: the twittering noise they make when they take flight comes from specially designed feathers—not from their own vocalization. They also have a periscope for a neck, apparently. See, you don’t have to be a poet or an artist to enjoy birding; there’s plenty for the engineers to geek out about, too. Maybe that should be the Audubon Society’s new tagline: “Unleash Your Inner Engineer.”

Stay warm, stay well…

Cover photo credit: Image by VCU Libraries. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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