Book Review: What the Robin Knows

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young, Houghton Mifflin Company (www.hmhbooks.com), 2012, 272 pages, $22.00.

Being the avid reader than I am, it is the rare book that captivates me enough by the last page that I relish setting it aside to be reread. Most books end up consigned to the bookshelf to become what author David Quammen describes as a “comforting sort of intellectual wallpaper.” Rarer still is the book that entices me to reread it from the first few chapters. But so it was that some eighty pages in – having already recommended this book to any colleague who would listen – I knew that What the Robin Knows was indeed such a rare book. Turning over that last page did not disappoint.

Imagine if every time you set foot outdoors, you were at once attuned to the natural world around you. Imagine if you could intuit the comings and goings of songbirds – their quirks, their chatter, their body language – like second nature. Unless you are Sacagawea or Crocodile Dundee, for most people that is the stuff of legend, tall tales emboldened and emblazoned in Hollywood’s hallowed halls. But what if deciphering bird language was neither flight of fancy nor parlor trick, but instead a primeval, visceral know-how, a skill that could be restored to second nature?

Through What the Robin Knows, birder, tracker, and naturalist Jon Young establishes the simple premise that there is a common language among songbirds, and if you take the time not only to hear, but to listen, birdsong can open doors to the natural world around you. To really see wildlife, Young offers – not just the urban-indentured skunks and raccoons, but the evasive deer, foxes, and mountain lions we share the woods with – you have to get the birds’ permission first.

At first blush, this may sound like all sorts of bunkum and hokum. But the deep bird language Young is selling is a visceral augury shared among scouts and trackers around the world, from the San Bushmen of South Africa to the Native Americans of North America. In today’s busy world, where this sixth-sense savvy has atrophied, modern man has instead become victim to not seeing the trees for the forest. The remedy is simple: listen to the birds.

Songbirds, Young explains, communicate their state of affairs through birdsong. Wherever songbirds are present, they are almost always “on” ­– constantly vocalizing as they forage, feed young, and defend territories. There are five typical vocalizations that make up the basic building blocks of what trackers call “bird language”: the four commonplace vocalizations that represent songbirds’ baseline behaviors (songs, companion calls, territorial aggression, and adolescent begging), and alarm calls.

For those that know how to listen, songbirds can be viewed as sentinels, constantly on the lookout for predators or other intruders and quick to raise the hue and cry when a threat is imminent. But it is just as important to realize that other creatures – be they fellow birds or deer, foxes, and mountain lions – also make it a habit to “eavesdrop” on birdsong, Mother Nature’s party line. Whether eavesdropping occurs intraspecies, interspecies, interorder, or interclass, other wildlife take heed when songbirds sound the alarm. To become accepted as part of the baseline and earn songbirds’ permission to eavesdrop, explains Young, we must diminish our intrusion into the songbirds’ space, a skillset teachable through patience, observation, and a “routine of invisibility.”

WhatthebirdKnowsmage008

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

These skillsets are, of course, the bread and butter of What the Robin Knows. To master them, you must not only learn to assimilate yourself into the baseline through nonintrusive behaviors, but also recognize typical songbirds’ unique baseline behaviors (territorial songs and companion calls) and alarm-response behaviors (the bird plow, hook, popcorn, sentinel, bullet, and hawk drop, to name a few). When you combine these superpowers – when songbirds no longer announce your arrival as a threat, when your zone of awareness exceeds your zone of disturbance, and when you can recognize the nuances of bird behaviors – only then will you be able to intuit that a junco’s evasive “bullet” flight betrays a Cooper’s hawk on the wing, or that the “popcorn” flight of winter wrens exposes a coyote moving through the underbrush.

To better understand the principles of bird language, let’s consider two examples. The first comes from the genius mind of The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, who cut to the bone of deep bird language in a 1993 cartoon parodying nature documentaries. In the single frame, a raccoon ambles through the woods without a care in the world, lulled into complacency by the soothing musical accompaniment of an attending flutist and clarinetist. The caption reads:

“On this particular day, Rory the raccoon was hunting frogs at his favorite stream, and the pleasant background music told him that Mr. Mountain Lion was nowhere around.”

Replace the duet with songbirds, and you’ve got a textbook example of eavesdropping. The music (birdsong) tells Rory (other wildlife) everything is hunky-dory. When the music stops unexpectedly (threat), it is time for Rory to get out of Dodge.

The second example comes from colleague and weekend outdoorsman Mark Wilson. This September, Mark was hunting black-tail deer in Siskiyou County east of Fort Jones. On that particular Friday, Mark shot, field dressed, and deboned a buck, leaving behind the carcass, bones, and gut pile for scavengers. He also left behind a game camera. When he returned to check the kill site Saturday morning, the carcass was gone. A quick review of the game camera revealed images of a grey fox and the true culprit, a 300 lb black bear.

Without blood or snow to track the bear’s retreat, Mark figured it had dragged the carcass across or downslope (the paths of least resistance), so Mark headed downhill, east, in search of the buck. It was only after walking several hundred yards that he first registered the cacophony of ravens and crows in flight above tree line heading north, canvassing the woods with intent. Instinctually, Mark gave chase. As he gained ground with the boil of birds, the corvids changed course, this time to the west in response to a lone raven’s call. And there in a clearing, where the birds were converging in the woods to dine, lay the deer’s remains.

In following the flight of birds to the carcass, Mark was in effect “wake hunting,” a strategy regularly used by Cooper’s hawks and jays to conserve energy by eavesdropping, letting others do the hard work. He had effectively tapped into the forest’s baseline and was listening to the birds.

Whether you are a naturalist, a birder, a hunter, or a photographer, the benefits of learning the language of the birds are indisputable: acceptance as a cohort of the woods, a small footprint and all-seeing eyes, and at long last hearing what a little bird told you. I find the idea intoxicating. But it’s up to you to learn what the robin knows…

This review is also featured in the Winter 2012 Newsletter of The Western Section of the Wildlife Society.

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