Thursday, 15 March 2012

Bird Language

As the train pulled into a station, somewhere in western Slovakia, the movement of pigeons caught my eye.  It wasn't the normal take-off of a flock of pigeons; there was a quickness, a deadly urgency in the way they flew. They were clearly keen to make a quick exit.

                                                        Peregrine Falcon by Tom Curtis


"Peregrine!" -  I felt a buzz of excitement as the thought crossed my mind. Somehow I had a sense it was there. My eyes scoured the industrial landscape, and there he was, quick-flapping, broad chested and pointy-winged, probably a male judging by the size. He casually flew up to the top of a metal tower and landed, alone, to survey the scene.

Such an observation is not unusual and is not a display of extraordinary psychic power! Practically anyone can develop this ability. 'Bird language' goes way beyond identifying species by their calls. It is the art of reading the 'concentric rings' of nature, as American naturalist and tracker Jon Young puts it. This includes both vocal language (eg contact calls, alarms etc) as well as reading the language of behaviour as in the example above. Everything is connected to everything else, and every creature that moves through the landscape will send out 'ripples' around it. Some of these are obvious, such as a cat causing a blackbird to respond with an agitated 'chink-chink';  others less so, but with a bit of practise, one can begin to make surprising deductions about who is around in nature and what they're up to.

I remember first being fired up by bird language, standing near the Aga in my friend John's kitchen in rural Worcestershire. John was one of my nature  - and particularly birding - mentors. We were in mid-conversation when suddenly he stopped and dashed outside excitedly. He came back in shortly afterwards, explaining that he had heard the birds giving a raptor alarm, and he wanted to see who was passing by. I was impressed. I had barely heard anything and yet he had made what to my mind was an astonishing deduction.

Reading bird language is not a new skill and I have no doubt that it is much older than humanity itself. After all many other species of birds and mammals are very adept at reading the messages of birds, especially as an early warning system to alert them to predators. Just the other day I was watching four roe deer 250m upwind from me. No chance of me being detected - I thought. But I unwittingly startled a huge flock of skittish wood pigeons on the intervening turnip field - and the roe deer were off, white bums flashing as they vanished into the plantation.

Could it be that the earliest birds gave alarm calls that were heeded by our ancient mammalian ancestors, way back in the Jurassic? If that is the case then maybe we have been tuned into bird language for the last 150 million years of our evolutionary history. I don't have direct proof, but it's not an unreasonable theory!

Many indigenous people and those living close to the land still rely on bird language - in Africa and elsewhere, this can be a matter of life and death, so I'm told. Knowing the whereabouts of a leopard, or water buffalo is useful knowledge. Who knows -  we may all share a common ancestor in our distant past who managed to escape death because he or she was alerted by the birds that a predator was on the prowl!

Why bother learning bird language? What relevance does it have in the modern world?
Alertness, stillness, fascination and empathy all spring to mind - and much more. Just like tracking, it can sharpen our senses (as well as highlighting how much we miss!), it can help us read the landscape. It can help us get a clearer understanding of the wildlife and habitats we are working to protect. And somehow it can make us feel that much more alive.

Resources
Jon Young's CD set Advanced Bird Language is an excellent introduction to this art, and while focussing mainly on American species, the principles apply to birds pretty much anywhere, and there's plenty to work on for many years! Also check out the Bird Language DVD by the 8 Shields Institute.

There is a strong tradition of bird language recognition in Britain, even if it hasn't been named as such. Good places to start are J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, which many would agree is one of the finest pieces of British nature writing, and describes in many places how he reads the 'concentric rings' sent out by the peregrine in the birds all around.

A real gem is Simon King's Wildguide, which you can still get on Amazon. More recent is Simon Barnes' superb and highly entertaining Birdwatching with your Eyes Closed - an excellent and entertaining read, like many of his books. There are many more - watch this space for further recommendations, and if you are interested in Bird Language courses - get in touch.

In the meantime, go outside and listen!

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