For the Birds Radio Program: Connecting with Birds
When I was a little girl living in a suburb of Chicago, my most treasured birds were the cardinal who whistled to me from the trees on my walks to and from school. I’d whistle back, and they’d answer, and I pretended that we were carrying on magical conversations. My favorite movie was Sleeping Beauty, and my favorite scene in the movie was when Aurora was in the woods talking to and dancing with the forest animals. There was something so powerfully evocative and satisfying in that lovely woodland scene that it remains one of my all-time favorite movie scenes even today. I had a powerful imagination on the right side of my brain, but as I got older, my left-brain kept telling me that in reality, not only was I not Sleeping Beauty, but those cardinals hadn’t really been talking to me at all.
Then I took an ornithology class and discovered to my delight that yes, those cardinals from long ago really were talking to me, but they weren’t engaging in friendly discourse. Those songs had been territorial warnings against that whistling little girl, a perceived trespasser.
Somehow, many of us need that feeling that we’re not just watching and listening to the natural world. Nature is also watching and listening to us. Perhaps it satisfies a deep need for acknowledgement, or perhaps we use it as evidence of our own existence and place in the universe. As an adult, one of my greatest solitary pleasures is still calling to birds in hopes of getting them to answer back. I’ve called loons in close to shore with an imitation of their wail call, the call loons use to beckon to family members.
I often get ravens to change course in the sky to fly directly over me, and once I called in a Sandhill Crane yearling whose parents had finally left it at the start of a new breeding season. I was wearing a red hat, the color of a crane’s bare facial skin, and the poor crane wanted so badly to find another crane that it circled me several times, perhaps using its own imagination as powerfully as I was using mine. When it finally set off on its own again, there was something wistful and sad in the way it gave me one backward glance as it headed on alone. I think that crane wanted to bridge the gap between us as badly as I did.
Twice I’ve had kinglets and once a Pine Grosbeak bridge the physical gap between human and bird by lighting on my hand. Those were among the most memorable, magical moments of my life. I keep a list of birds whose droppings have landed on me, perhaps because that list grows much faster than the list of birds who themselves have landed on me, but luckily, my “pooped upon list” still does not include common city pigeons or any gulls. But even a goopy plop is somehow an affirmation that I have some place in the natural world. Oddly, Sleeping Beauty and other Disney characters never seem to get bird droppings on them. Even the witches who walked around with crows or ravens never ever showed a suspicious white spot on their black dresses.
My left brain is still active enough to remind me occasionally that when birds call to me, or even alight on me, they are merely making a programmed response to an auditory or visual stimulus that makes them think there’s a territorial intruder. But how appealing it is to our right brains to imagine happy conversations in the forest—connections that make us feel that we are a genuine part of nature, and nature is a genuine part of us.