Robins Barking at Owls and other Bird Language Basics

Book Cover: What the Robin Knows

Jon Young’s newest book on bird language.

I never knew that sitting and listening could be so fascinating. Parked there in the evening twilight, it was evident that the nearby robins were agitated, while those farther away were not. In retrospect, it seemed that the robins were barking, much as a dog might bark at something or someone scary, but in a shrill, bird-like way. I had often heard this behavior in the evening, and never made any sense of it, nor really tried to. But then this great horned owl swooped by overhead, and the “barking” followed it. The robins didn’t follow it themselves, but the barking did as robin after robin sounded the alarm in sequence along the owl’s flight path. I felt as if the door had just been opened to a whole new experience of nature.

            The following day, and again a couple weeks later, I encountered barking robins and stopped to investigate. In each case they were barking at an owl. I do not know if that call is always associated with owls, but I definitely know to look, listen, and pay attention now when I hear the robins barking.

            Interpreting bird language is a skill I’ve wanted to learn for the last thirty years, but somehow never figured out how to get started with it on my own. Back in the early 1980s, in junior high and high school, I devoured each one of Tom Brown’s books as fast as he could write them. I constantly practiced my fox walking, stalking, peripheral vision, intermittent attention, basic tracking, and survival skills. Brown also talked about the “concentric rings of nature,” how disturbances, such as a person walking, sent ripples of alarm out through nature. If you could learn to read these disturbances, he implied, then you could know what was happening beyond your field of vision. It was a skill I desperately wanted to learn, but somehow couldn’t figure out how to begin. Brown’s advice was basically to sit in one spot and observe nature until you figured it all out.  I admit that I never really did. I got restless. My mind wandered. I didn’t have any tools to decipher what was going on around me.

            I was completely stymied for twenty years, until Jon Young described learning the language of the birds in his Seeing Through Native Eyes audio series. Young outlined the five voices of the birds (song, companion calls, territorial aggression, juvenile begging, and alarms). Somehow, merely having definitions of these calls made it possible to begin to hear them for the first time.

            In retrospect, I wonder if I might have been more successful if I had spent more time in the bird-rich riparian areas of the valleys, rather than in the hills and mountains. The whitetail deer of the valleys, for example, are hypersensitive to bird language. Sometimes it seems like you cannot walk ten feet through the woods, even quietly stalking, without spooking out a bunch of whitetails a quarter mile away. It is very different experience than in the mountains, where an absent-minded person can walk around a bush and nearly bump into a mule deer. The mule deer are either not as attuned to bird language as whitetails, or there is much less bird language to listen to. I suspect it is the latter. 

            Nowadays I take junior high kids out camping each spring in the bird-rich riparian zone along the nearby Jefferson River. I am in that busy part of my life where I have not yet been able to prioritize a sit spot on a daily basis, but we at least try to spend a few days in the field before the junior high kids arrive, tuning in, practicing bird language, and evaluating potential means to incorporate lessons about bird language into the experience for the kids.

            This year I eagerly watched Jon Young’s new video, Bird Language: How to Interpret the Behaviors and Patterns of Nature, and learned several new tips for interpreting bird language. Most helpful was the journaling/mapping procedure, to record pretty much everything that is happening, as it is happening. Instead of randomly hearing bird song without meaning, and ultimately drifting off in thought, this method provided a clearly defined mission for my admittedly very busy Western mind to tackle and accomplish. Almost immediately I observed events that I may not have paid much attention to in the past. It opened up a whole new channel of experience. For example, while walking along the slough one day, I saw a common mallard duck shoot out of the water like a bullet. I recognized that it was not the usual, agitated, quacking rise and departure associated with my own approach, but rather that the duck was more like a missile fired straight out of the water. It reacted precisely to the arrival of a bald eagle flying in over the trees. It was utterly obvious, yet I probably wouldn’t have noticed the connection had I not just watched the bird language video. Somehow, writing it all down and making a map brings the bird world directly into my consciousness.  It is pretty basic stuff, but it is a start!

            Right on the heels of the video, Jon Young published his newest book, What the Robin Knows, which I also eagerly devoured. It is a veritable encyclopedia of bird language tips and tidbits, fleshing out and clarifying many of the themes he introduced in Seeing Through Native Eyes and the Bird Language DVD.  The book is definitely not just about robins, but also describes bird language in detail across numerous other songbirds, as well as water birds, such as geese. Young also clarifies some previous statements, such as, “You cannot trust the corvids.” While the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays do not necessarily play by the rules of the five voices of the birds, they nevertheless have a lot to talk about in their own way, as Young expounds on throughout the book.

            My only complaint about Young’s book is that it isn’t organized in encyclopedic fashion. The information is excellent, just so scattered through the text that it would be difficult to relocate and review a specific tip about any particular bird. The book wasn’t apparently written as a book per se, but condensed by editors from 200,000 words of other text and speeches given by Jon Young over the years then peppered with notes from bird biologists. No matter, the book is worth reading again and again and again. 

            A purist might argue that it is “cheating” to have such great resources to work from at all, rather than just sitting out in the woods and figuring it out from scratch. But on the other hand, even the best resources still just outline what is possible. It is ultimately up to the individual to go out and see firsthand some of the bird language patterns described by Jon Young, and from there to build one’s own library of observations about bird language and bird behavior.  A person can still spend a lifetime listening and learning.

            Having spent the past week visiting a friend, I couldn’t help but notice a particular robin singing on and off throughout each day.  We were busy, so I didn’t have much time to sit and study bird language. But in the middle of a conversation one evening, I did notice the robin “barking” away at something. When I walked over to take a look, there was an owl sitting in a tree. It was a real thrill to recognize the same kind of behavior yet again. The door has definitely been opened to a whole new kind of experience in nature!

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