Jon Young on the Language of Birds

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I came across What the Robin Knows while wandering through a local bookstore here in West Lafayette, Indiana. I am a west coast girl — I was raised in Southern California, and now I live near Newport, Oregon — but this summer I’m living in the Midwest for a science writing internship.

In the short weeks I have been here, I’ve seen incredible numbers of robins around as I bike back and forth from the office. I’ve also come across cardinals and blackbirds and dozens of little birds I am still learning to name. Each time I see a new bird, I head over to the bookstore and flip through their field guides to identify my latest discovery and learn something about them.

Full disclosure: At the time writing, I know nothing about birds and have never paid much attention to them. I notice them now and then, if there is a particularly unusual one, but birdwatching has never held much allure for me. But after reading Jon Young’s book, my perspective completely changed. Biking to the office is full of thrilling encounters with birds. I pay attention to the sound of birdsong around me. I feel more alert and in tune with my surroundings. I even went out and found a spot to sit and observe birds — something Young refers to as a “sit spot”, a special place of learning.

Young, a naturalist and experienced tracker trained in indigenous tradition, introduces his readers to the concept of deep bird language through an immersive, humble approach. He guides his readers like a true mentor, teaching them how to cultivate respectfulness and empathy towards wildlife through examples and anecdotes.

The way to see more wildlife when you’re outside, Young claims, is to be in tune with bird language. They are the gatekeepers of the wilderness, and you need their permission to pass through.

If you know nothing about birds, like myself, this book is a great place to start learning about bird language. Birds are the communicators of the forest. Their songs, chirps, and behaviors all indicate specific messages to the fox, the deer, the coyote, and the cougar, as well as the other birds. By communicating among themselves, they alert other wildlife about what’s going on around them and forewarn other animals of possible threats. The birds also alert wildlife to your presence.

Young’s specific example often involves Joe the hiker. Unaware of his surroundings, Joe the hiker goes strolling through the forest, his footsteps thumping, his fishing gear clanging, unwittingly setting off what Young calls a bird plow; the flight of birds provoked by Joe the hiker’s presence. By learning not to set off the birds, and to understand and respect their space, you can come much closer to them and see more wildlife — which is basically a win-win.

Young includes a powerful quote from a San Bushman that is worth repeating:

“If one day I see a small bird and recognize it, a thin thread will form between me and that bird. If I just see it but don’t really recognize it, there is no thin thread. If I go out tomorrow and see and really recognize that same individual small bird again, the thread will thicken and strengthen just a little. Every time I see and recognize that bird, the thread strengthens. Eventually it will grow into a string, then a cord, and finally a rope. This is what it means to be a Bushman. We make ropes with all aspects of the creation in this way.”

There is much to be learned from the behavior and language of birds. Young references relevant research and science that serves to strengthen his arguments. He introduces his reader to indigenous trackers who have studied the language of birds far longer than any scientists. He also provides audio to accompany the book, referencing different recordings so that you can follow along and learn specific sounds: http://birdlanguage.com/

Mentorship is a significant theme throughout What the Robin Knows. Young has many years of experience as a mentor to youth, teaching them about tracking and bird language. He also talks about the influences of his own mentors and those who have left a strong impression on him. Jon Young’s humility, his authenticity, and his earnest curiosity are strongly conveyed through his writing. It often feels like he is mentoring the reader when he teaches by example. While he is not afraid to own up to his mistakes or reflect on what he might have done differently, he acknowledges his vast experience and recognizes that beginning to learn bird language is a challenge.

It’s a challenge that, by the end of the book, you will be eager to embrace.

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