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.

How a Childhood Book Inspired a Scientist’s Career

I reached out to Twitter and asked ornithologists what books inspired them to pursue their field of study. Among the answers was an email from Dr. Christopher M. Heckscher, an associate professor of environmental science at Delaware State University. The book that inspired him was a childhood treasure titled Traveling with the Birds by Rudyerd Boulton.

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Published in 1933, Traveling with the Birds was illustrated by American animal artist and National Geographic Illustrator Walter A. Weber. Weber studied art in Chicago and went on to work for the Field Museum of Natural History, which I had the pleasure of visiting for the first time last weekend. As I roamed the Hall of Birds on Saturday, I actually saw some of Weber’s work. He spent some time working for the National Park Service until eventually becoming an ornithologist for the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. He would eventually become chief nature artist for the National Geographic Society. 

A first edition copy of Traveling with the Birds in good condition sells for around US $40. It is considered a rare children’s book and illustrations by Weber are somewhat valuable, though you can find vintage prints on Etsy of many of his works. On February 18 in 1934, the New York Times wrote:

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In his email, Dr. Heckscher told me how the beautiful illustrations inspired him to study birds:

The book was given to me by my father about the time he introduced me to birding. It had been an inspiration to him as well.  It was published in 1933 and I’m not sure there was ever a second printing.  I see it’s still available via some second hand booksellers. It was a large book with large beautiful paintings.

The theme of the book was taking the reader on a journey with the birds through text and illustrations. Some birds were migrating, others moving from one place to another searching for food. The descriptions in the text were reflected in the book’s paintings.  I think what made such a big impression on me was the vibrant illustrations that conveyed movement and energy in the subject.  Ducks flying swiftly over ocean waves, a blue jay with an acorn – clearly on a mission.

It’s hard to convey the feeling but it was as if I was really moving with the birds. The book inspired awe in me at how birds were free to move such great distances living out their lives on the wing moving from one world to another. It was not a technical text, but really a book written for older children and adolescents.  I’ve been fascinated with bird behavior and migration ever since.

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I’m glad that Dr. Heckscher took the time to share with me this beautiful book so that I could learn about it and share it on the blog. Children’s books are often something that leaves a long-lasting impression. Many of us can think back and imagine the beautiful illustrations of the stories we poured over, picturing the detail in our heads and imagining the book in our hands as a child. For those of us lucky enough to have kept our childhood copy, we savor the knowledge that we can continue to share it with the next generation. Childhood books are influential and important, contributing to the choices that make us who we are today.

Certainly this was the case for our scientist Dr. Heckscher, who shared in his email that he now “travels with the birds” by using geolocator and GPS tracking devices in his research. Dr. Heckscher holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University and a M.S. and PhD in Entomology and Wildlife Biology from the University of Delaware. In 2016, he received a conservation award:

“Recently, he was the first to document intratropical migration in a Nearctic-Neotropical migrant songbird. That discovery – that each individual Veery migrates between two separate wintering locations – has focused attention on the phenomenon of intratropical movement in North American breeding songbirds which had previously been unknown or otherwise overlooked.”

Thank you very much Dr. Heckscher for sharing your inspiration!

Jennifer Ackerman Explores the Astonishing Intelligence of Birds

You may be surprised to learn a new definition for the old insult “bird brain”. It turns out that birds are incredibly intelligent creatures. Recently crows made headlines on the New York Times for learning to make sophisticated tools from memory. This month, a paper was published on scientists’ quest to understand bird conversation. But in 2016, when Ackerman published her book, scientists had only been toeing the boundary line of understanding avian intelligence. Now, the subject fascinates the public as much as the scientists who study it.

Ackerman’s book is well-written and well-informed. Her tone is equal parts amused and fascinated as she dialogues with ornithologists and experts. She introduces her readers to the stars of avian intelligence: New Caledonian crows, parrots, ravens, and my personal favorite, the bowerbird.  Bowerbirds are the aesthetics of the avian world. The males create ornate, decorative nests in which they seduce a potential mate. Female bowerbirds are notoriously picky. Males hand-select colorful objects they arrange to impress females. Ackerman describes this unique behavior in such a captivating way that I just had to look up pictures of bowerbird nests.

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The Genius of Birds explores the rich and diverse characteristics of avian intelligence, from language and birdsong to courting behavior and homing instinct. Ackerman presents the bird not as the dumb creature it has been thought of for centuries (evoking terms such as bird brain, etc), but as a brilliant and misunderstood creature that we have yet to fully understand. She focuses on present understanding of birds in comparison to past misconceptions. Although I would have enjoyed a more thorough glimpse into history, as I enjoy science books that move from past to present, Ackerman does a great job of focusing on the present circumstances; what do we know, and what do we have left to learn?

Her book isn’t particularly moving or emotionally-provoking, but it is a thorough account of a fascinating subject. She is careful to quote scientists who warn against anthropomorphism, but it often feels as if she is bestowing her own anthropomorphic thoughts on the birds she observes. I think that this is actually an effective way for her to engage with non-scientific audiences and those who are emotionally invested in birds, but for those looking for a strictly professional and scientific glimpse into bird brains, the book may fall short in that it lacks a serious tone. That said, her writing is fun and engaging, and she puts a special emphasis on puns (for those who enjoy bird puns, you’ll find yourself giggling quite a bit).

The Genius of Birds is a New York Times bestseller for a reason – it’s educational, fascinating, and a wonderful example of engaging storytelling. It is especially wonderful for those who don’t know anything about birds but want to know more about their intelligence, behaviors, and characteristics. Ackerman’s book is charming and worth reading — and if you’re like me, by the time you’ve finished reading you’ll want to watch Planet Earth again for that cute bird with the blue face on its feathers dancing for a potential mate.

Support a local bookstore and find a copy near you!