The Language of Birds

How hanging a bird feeder in the backyard brings back memories of childhood through birds and their songs.

This spring, I decided to hang two bird feeders in my backyard. I went to Harvey’s in Needham, purchased feeders and the appropriate seed for wild song birds and finches, and hung the feeders on the tree limbs outside my kitchen window. I did not know what to expect. I wasn’t sure if the birds would find my feeder. I wondered whether there was some “trick” to get the birds to come and eat. I had to believe that, like many things, I needed to let nature take its course. 

I became interested in birds as a child. While my town in Connecticut was suburban, it had vast rural sections. Behind my neighborhood were acres of untouched fields and woods that went on for miles. On my daily walk to and from elementary school I crossed a bridge over a small brook, a tributary of the larger Trout Brook. After school and all summer I would spend hours wading in that clear water, catching crayfish, salamanders, pollywogs and frogs. The rocks were slippery but the water was shallow, and I can still recall how it felt stepping barefoot into that stream in early Spring; the water flowing over my feet was shockingly cold.   

It was during those walks to school and on summer vacations that I learned about birds and their songs. I saw Blue Jays, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Baltimore Orioles, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Robins, and Cardinals. I saw Mourning Doves and heard their sad “cooah! coo-coo-coo.” I heard the “Meee-oooww! Meee-oooww!” of the Catbird and the “TEA-cher, TEA-cher, TEA-cher!” of the Ovenbird.  If I did not know what a bird was, I looked it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. As I walked the fields I often flushed out Ring-Necked Pheasants or Whip-Poor-Wills. I would see Red-tailed Hawks flying high on hot air drafts, soundlessly stalking prey. At dusk I heard the Mockingbird; at night the Owl’s hoot.

I not only wanted to see those birds again, I wanted to hear their songs. I also wanted my children to see and hear them, too. By hanging bird feeders I hoped to bring the birds to me.

And bring them I did - I am amazed at the number and variety of birds that have visited my feeders. I get Purple Finches, Goldfinches, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue jays, Cardinals, Nuthatches, Sparrows of all kinds, and Red-winged Blackbirds. The Mourning Doves eat from under the feeders; the Grackles come and scare all the other birds away. To my surprise and delight, I would see birds feeding that I could not identify, so I bought the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds. My kids love all the activity at the bird-feeder. They check out all the birds and ask, “Mom! What’s that?” or “Look how red that bird is! What is it?”  If I can identify the bird, I tell them what it is. If not, I pull out my Guide and we figure it out together. 

The other day my eldest son and I sat outside on the stoop and watched the birds as they ate. Because of our presence some birds would alight on a near-by branch and tweet and sing before approaching the feeder. Birds at the feeder would also be tweeting and chirping. My son, observing this, asked, “What do you think that bird is saying? Do you think birds have a language that only they understand?” I listened to the birds for awhile, and thought, yes, they seem to be speaking to each other. There was a “call” and “response” aspect to their twittering. They seemed to be weighing the danger of the situation (us sitting here) against the benefit of the feeder (dinner).

While their chirping was melodic and beautiful, it was not “understandable” in any true sense of the word. Interestingly, many ancient mythologies revolved around a belief that only the wisest men could understand the language of birds. It was believed that it was gift bestowed by God or a deity; that to understand the language of birds was the highest order of knowledge. The Language of Birds is also known as the Green Language or the Language of the Gods, and has been referenced from Solomon, to Dag the Wise, to St. Francis of Assisi, to Odin, whose two birds, Hugin and Munin, flew about the world and revealed to Odin the deeds of mortal men. And while I could not claim to understand and could only intuit what the birds were actually saying to each other (having not been bestowed with that particular gift), I knew this: the songs resonated deeply within me. I brought the birds to my backyard to reclaim some part of my childhood, and to share that part with my own children. When they sing, I remember myself as a young girl walking through those Connecticut fields. 

Perhaps one need not be the wisest in the land to understand the language of birds. Perhaps a bird’s song on a Spring evening speaks a language that anyone can understand notwithstanding our mortal condition - as long as we travel that path to understanding, not through our minds, but through our hearts.

You can read more about The Language of Birds at Suite101.

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