November 25, 2012

Bird language book a call to use our instincts

By Elizabeth Lee

---- — There’s a new book out that would make a great gift this year. It’s called “What the Robin Knows.”

It’s about bird language.

While the chirping of birds may seem inconsequential, this book is not your ordinary bird guide and is not just for birders. Author Jon Young makes a strong case for what humans are missing by ignoring or neglecting to give our attention to the vocalizations of birds.

In “What the Robin Knows,” Young describes five basic types of vocalizations: songs, companion calls, territorial aggression, adolescent begging and alarms. Anyone who has sat in a tree stand, walked a trail or stood knee deep in a river has heard all of these at some time.

What you may have been missing, or may have noticed but not been able to interpret, is that both the silences and the sounds of birds are communicating information about the wider forest.

To teach about bird language, Young describes the relationship between a zone of awareness and a zone of disturbance. The goal of anyone wanting to learn bird language is to make your zone of awareness larger and your zone of disturbance smaller. 

For experienced woodsmen and trackers, this may seem obvious, but the actual technique of walking with “invisibility” is not an easy skill to obtain. Young learned the old-fashioned way — years outside with the guidance of mentors.

“Even experienced birders are sometimes surprised by the layers of behavioral interpretation that are possible,” says Josh Lane, bird language interpreter and mentor for Young’s e-course.

Often birds will be the first sign you have that animals are on the move in the forest. Young’s experience allows him to read what’s happening from a distance.

When there are rippling alarms throughout the canopy, he can estimate where a predator is and how fast it’s moving. The birds use different alarms depending on whether it’s an aerial or a ground predator. So much of what Young describes seems obvious but it is rarely noticed.

What difference does bird language make to humans? 

We as people have instincts that we rarely use, especially in connection with nature. Though we can still read moods in friends or threatening expressions from strangers, we are no longer dependent on our instincts and the primordial lines of communication with other species that we once relied on. It is an extreme form of disconnection.

Young explains the subtle importance of communication among species in the wild: “How many tens of hundreds of millions of years experience with deer … have hard-wired the birds’ instincts? So they don’t become overly alarmed about a deer … It would be a waste of energy. If however a deer should get spooked and move in a way that is obviously not casual feeding, in a way that violates the baseline, the birds and chipmunks will almost certainly respond with mild agitation alarms — not fear of the deer, just in recognition that something has caught the deer’s attention.”

There is no doubt that this degree of awareness could benefit humans — whether for hunting or driving cars or evading opponents in athletics or taking photographs or even enjoying our backyards more. Bird language can keep us from colliding into the wildlife we seek, especially the species that have to flee from our stumbling interruption.

Young contends, “Our sensory equipment and brains are still designed for awareness. These instincts are still in each of us, just buried … Connecting with bird language begins the process of unearthing them.”

For more, see The site offers an e-course, DVDs and an excellent audio library of bird calls and alarms contributed by Maine guide and naturalist Dan Gardoqui.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at