WHAT THE ROBIN KNOWS
ONE EARLY SPRING DAY when I was a teenager and already keenly interested in birds, I was scouting the vast salt marshes of southern New Jersey, and I saw a ruff. A ruff! This wading bird (considered a sandpiper) wasn’t supposed to be on the North American continent at all, but there it was, fresh in from Europe or perhaps even Asia. That was an exciting moment, and so was my teenage discovery of the scissor-tailed flycatcher and the snowy owl, both way out of their respective ranges, and the very rare golden-winged warbler. I went to the trouble of identifying those unexpected birds because I identified every bird I saw and heard. If I couldn’t do so on the first encounter, I went back the next day, and the next. If I heard a sound from a bird I hadn’t heard before, I grabbed my binoculars and went searching until I found the source—or left defeated, but determined to find it at the next opportunity. In May, when the warblers migrated across New Jersey over the course of just three or four peak days, I was out there aggressively trying to sort them out—fifteen or so species at my hangout, as well as the forty others that breed in New Jersey. At Rutgers, where I studied anthropology and natural history, I was probably the first one to sign up for the annual one-day bird count that began in the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge—a major point along the Atlantic Flyway in southern New Jersey—and concluded at Helyar Woods near the campus. Success for our van full of varied birders began that day before dawn with a singing Chuck-will’s-widow and concluded after nightfall with an eastern screech-owl. That very long day’s scouring yielded ninety-six species. While that may not be so impressive to some really good birders, it was my best day up to that point. I was eighteen years old.
I’ve had a lot of great birding moments in North America, the Hawaiian Islands, Europe, and Africa, and I’ve drawn solid lessons from them, but this fact remains: the American robin in my yard has much more to teach me as I sit quietly beneath a tree first thing each morning (with my binoculars on my lap only rarely these days). For one thing, this bird is so handy. For another, it’s one of the most expressive of all birds, vocally and in its body language. Was the robin driven into the tree by something in the thicket, or was it drawn up by curiosity (which is to say, mild alarm)? If I know this bird, I know the answer. I know when there’s a cat in the vicinity. I know when there’s a dog, not a cat, in the vicinity. Of course, the robin also advises me about what seems to be its greatest fear: the deadly accipiters winging furtively through the neighborhood. Likewise for the song sparrows, even though they’re virtually invisible to most folks walking around the neighborhood (song sparrows, not house sparrows). These elusive little brown shadows that bustle on the brown earth at the sides of the yard—shreep shreep shreep—then hop to the top of the bush (almost always the top), flip their wings, flip their tails, peer down intently—shreep shreep shreep. They also know all about the cat and the dog and the sharp-shinned hawk. For learning bird language, song sparrows are great allies.
Is a junco hanging around this morning? When feeding, this small gray bird favors the shadowy patches of open ground that match its coloration perfectly. If I haven’t really engaged my wide-angle “owl” vision (pretty much the opposite of narrow-angle binocular vision), if I’m not calm and quiet enough to detect subtle movements and hear subtle sounds, this modest creature will always get the best of me and remain undetected. I may unwittingly step on its saucer-size, carefully woven nest of rootlets, moss, pine needles, and grass. So it stands to reason that juncos are masters of subtlety: any songbird that feeds on the ground and often nests on the ground, with danger therefore a constant companion, had better be wary. Sometimes I think the deer have the juncos in their front pockets. When one of these little birds finally bursts off the ground and flies away, flashing its dark gray and white tail pattern, the deer’s huge ears—veritable radar dishes—swivel instantly in that direction. For them, the tiny twittering alarm must be like a screaming siren.
Robins? Sparrows? Juncos? Boring! I’ve heard this lament from the occasional first-day student, but I’ve never heard it from a third-day student. It just doesn’t happen, because the complaint is so wrong, and it doesn’t take anyone long to understand why. When we really see and hear and begin to understand these and other birds, the revelations are fun, enthralling, even vital.
My name for the study of birds’ behavior and accompanying vocalizations is “deep bird language,” and I believe—and will attempt to demonstrate in these pages—that it’s the key to understanding both the backyard and the forest. Here’s a little demonstration of how it works. (I’d put this in the “fun” category.) I was meeting some people at a new mentoring center in California. A board member was showing me around the facility, about which everyone was justifiably proud. In the main part of the building, a converted suburban house, the two of us were in a backroom that had a sliding glass door opening onto a backyard and swimming pool. Through this door, I spied a small brown bird on the ground right outside, helping itself to something trapped in a spider web. As I edged closer, I realized that these were baby spiders in their own web, and the bird was plucking them up, one by one, with its long curved bill, as effective for this job as a pair of tweezers. When I got too close to the glass door, the bird, a wrentit, hopped off and went to ground at the base of an overgrown hedge only a few feet away. If it raised an alarm call at that moment, I could not hear it through the glass door, with some ambient sound coming from another room and my host speaking continuously as he pointed to photographs and told me stories of this place. I enjoyed the stories and was quite engaged, even if my attention seemed elsewhere.
Perched in a nearby tree was a robin, singing away. I couldn’t hear the song, but seeing its head flip this way and that—its mouth open, its throat moving, its body relaxed—I knew the bird was singing (listen to audio file 1, for example). I turned back to the wrentit, and just as I did, it flew up five feet, something over waist height. Now it was almost in my face, a few feet away. I could barely hear the chut! alarm, but I could see the pumping tail. (The alarm call is in audio file 3.) This was the same bird that had retreated from me a few moments earlier, so I concluded that something else had startled it even more. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the robin had quit singing and was rigid except for its tail, which was now also pumping in alarm. Let’s see ... two alarmed birds in a suburban yard, one of them a ground dweller who has jumped up five feet—not ten, not fifty, but five. When I tell this story to a lay audience and ask for guesses about the cause of the alarm, everybody knows the answer.
On the scene, however, when I turned to my new friend and said, “Hey, there’s a cat coming,” he didn’t know what to make of my prediction. He hadn’t seen what I’d seen. Frankly, he was in a completely different frame of mind at the moment.
“A cat’s coming. Look!” I pointed down to the ground outside the glass door, where the cat would surely slink past shortly. When it did a few seconds later, my friend’s jaw dropped, but only because he hadn’t been following the story outside. Any thoughts about my psychic powers were erased by my real-world explanation of what had happened between the wrentit, the robin, and the cat.
There’s nothing random about birds’ awareness and behavior. They have too much at stake—life and death. Nor does random luck determine who among us has really close encounters with them and the other animals. As cosseted humans who have lost much of our sensory keenness, we are at a great disadvantage, but we can do much better. The birds’ language can be loaded with meaning for us as well, if only we pay close enough attention. We have ears; we can tune in, too. If we understand the birds, we can meet just about any animal we want. Without this understanding, many well-meaning seekers find the fox only when she’s running away or leaping across the midnight road in the glare of the headlights. I’d much rather find her lying on a mossy bed in dappled sunlight in the early morning, lazily licking her paws, grooming herself, and gazing over the landscape with soft eyes, ears angling this way and that as she picks up and listens to the nuances carried by the wind. This fox is tuned in to the tapestry of bird song on all sides. The animals know the importance of this language, and they listen to it. This is how they learn about us, and the birds’ alarms give them so much advance warning of our approach that they can choose the manner and timing of their own retiring departure. Only rarely do they actually have to run away.
We are often (usually, to be honest) a jarring, unaware presence in the world beyond the front door. Even when we’re “bird watching,” looking for different species—in many cases for particular species—there can be a sense in which we’re hunting. If we hear the call of a black-throated green warbler and want to have a look at it, we more or less ignore the other birds, so intent are we on locating that beautiful warbler. The robin may rebuke our sudden incursion, the chipmunk may chip at us, the squirrel may race up the tree and wave its tail, but we’re only peripherally aware of these messages, if at all. (The robin’s agitation call is in audio file 2; examples of chipmunk alarm calls are in audio file 66 [terrestrial alarm] and number 68 [alarm near hole].)