Adventure in Place: Birding and Bird Language

Article by Randy Gaetano

Adventure in Place: Birding and Bird Language

Photography by Bill Kramer

Follow along to discover the world of birds and bird language… and enjoy the health benefits these practices have to offer — right from your backyard.

We hope you are getting outside daily and engaging with your environment as much as possible. Continuing with our Adventure in Place content series to get you out there, this post will explore the world of birds and ways to connect with them. Whether you want to dive deep into the world of bird language or add all of your area’s migrant species to your bird list as they pass through town ... or just want to put up a feeder in the yard — birds are an incredible way to connect with the wild. The best part is ... they are everywhere, including your neighborhood.

Having birds around your home and in the neighborhood improve your well-being — and connecting with them can lower stress levels and improve your mood.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the outdoors with my dad and have always relished time spent observing birds. It wasn’t until I lived in Costa Rica for a couple of years that I began to really dig into learning about and seeking opportunities to see and identify various specific species. Discovering Costa Rica’s population of one of the world’s most beautiful birds, the resplendent quetzal, began my quest and from there the obsession grew.

Fast forward a couple of years and I find myself living in and exploring the southern coastal forests of Maine and New Hampshire — a great corridor for observing a vast number of local and migrant bird species. The bonus was becoming close friends with two guys who were more obsessed than me — Bill Kramer (Visual Design Director at NEMO and avid bird photographer who took all of the images in this post) and Dan Gardoqui (Bird Language expert and mentor, founder of Lead with Nature, and Science & Audio Editor for What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal Nature’s Secrets).

I’ve pulled both of these great folks in to share their knowledge to help you start a practice that is both an awesome way to connect with nature from within our backyards and neighborhood green spaces, and also a fulfilling hobby that can grow with you as your interest grows and we eventually get back to our normal ability to explore natural spaces everywhere again.

While sitting in a blind one spring morning a few years back with Dan, I was completely in awe of the orchestra of bird song around us. It was a gorgeous web of hundreds of sounds.

He began to conceptualize — and deeply widen my awareness — around the idea that a wave of bird song follows the sunrise as it perpetually moves around the world.

The concept hit me as I thought about this perpetual chorus that sings day after day — a wave that has been in motion around our Earth for millions of years. That moment was an inspiration for me and I went on to co-direct this award-winning short film The Birder that featured Dan a short time after. I hope you take a moment to enjoy the film and I hope these tips from Bill and Dan on birding and bird language inspire you to start connecting with your winged friends.

A Great Time to Learn Bird Language, With Dan Gardoqui

If you're like millions of others out there stuck at home, you're not only doing the world good by staying home, but you're also primed and ready for learning the ancient language of the birds — Bird Language. Knowing bird language doesn't mean you can make every bird call, song, and tweet... but instead, it means you can decode the sounds and body language of birds so that you can understand nature's secrets. The best part is, you're built for this.

All of our ancestors — we’re talking way back — understood bird language because they had to in order to survive. Think of a horror movie and how quiet it gets before something terrible happens? That's really no different than the feeling when all the birds fly away (or get quiet) as trouble comes near. But tuning into birds isn't just about knowing how to stay safe — it's also about finding peace, solace, and wellness with our wild neighbors. We're part of the more-than-human-world — something we're truly appreciating now that we can't spend time with other humans in person.

Research in many fields demonstrates the positive health effects of time in nature and time with animals. Time in nature decreases stress levels, heart rates, and anxiety. Take some time to sit outside and watch and listen to the birds. Be curious ... let the birds teach you — learning Bird Language isn't really that hard. You may have more time on your hands and this is a great way to enjoy it!

Dan’s Four Easy Steps to Learning Bird Language

  1. Get a Sit Spot. Find a place outside that's safe, close to home, and easy to get to. Go to this place at least a few times a week (ideally every day) for at least 20 minutes. Don't worry about what you "should" or "shouldn't" do there… just get there regularly, breathe, and tune into nature.

  2. Tune Up Your Senses. Now you've got a sit spot and its' time to exercise your senses. Practice some simple breathing techniques to slow down your mind and body. Then, tune into one sense at a time. Try closing your eyes and listening all around you...try feeling the wind, sun, cold, warmth on your skin...try smelling the air...tasting with your tongue.

  3. Learn One Bird, First. You're at your sit spot. Your senses are engaged. Now...try to find one bird (by sight or sound). Don't worry about knowing its actual name. Give it your own name if you like … Watch it. Listen to it. Pay attention to its body language. When you're back inside, do a little research to learn more about this bird. Use books, apps, the internet, friends, etc.

  4. Be Curious and Humble. Curiosity is the currency for connection. You may have to fake it until you make it, but ask questions like "What would it be like to be that bird?", "Where does it sleep at night?", "Does it have a nest? A mate? A family?", and "How might my actions affect this bird?"These questions should evoke empathy and humility. Now...try spending one day where you consciously put the well-being of birds ahead of your own agenda. Example: If a bird is in your path, wait until it flies away before walking.

When you practice these 4 steps, you'll be well on your way to remembering an ancient language we all know deep down inside — the language of nature.

Sharing the Birding Passion with Bill Kramer

While the activity of birding may seem not all that glamorous, exciting, or adventurous… I promise you it is all of these.

The best part is that it can be as passive or intense as you make it. I look at birding as a truly customizable hobby that spans twelve months of the year. I was introduced to birding around the same time I purchased my first digital camera in 2002. I wanted to focus on wildlife, so I acquired a nice zoom lens to allow for some close-up shots of nature. I would go out early in the morning and walk around my property photographing anything that moved.

I purchased a Sibley Birding Guide based on the area I lived and was blown away with all the different species that I had never noticed. I say "noticed" because that is precisely what birding does. It allows you to accurately observe nature, notice patterns, and in that way feel closely tied to the seasonal treads of the wild world around you.

I’d heard many of these “new” birds in the past, I just never took the time to notice them. Just like the popular toys of my youth, I wanted to collect them all. I think this quickly became one of the most exciting parts about birding that hit me. Here is the book filled with birds that live around me, and here are some blurbs on where and when to find them — what a fun adventure! You don’t have to get a guide, but I found it added to my experience.

The best part is we are coming into the most active bird migration time of the year and you will have some real gems visiting your yard over the next few weeks!

I remember, very clearly, the first new bird that I positively identified in a small creek right next to my house. It was a Black and White Warbler, playing in the water. The thrill of identifying a bird does pose one problem, immediately you’re off to find the next bird you have never identified, and the obsession begins. The longer this goes on the tougher it becomes. You may even find yourself waking up at 4 a.m. to get up for the dawn chorus and a slight chance to see your next lifer (birder term for the first time you see and correctly identify a species of bird). Believe me, it’s worth it.

Now that I have been birding for many years it has become a real treat to share this passion, and connection to nature with my daughter, Olive.

Every January 1st, we start a new “Yard Bird List” for the year. The rules are simple, if you see it in the yard or flying overhead, it goes on the list with the date it was first seen. We had a very gregarious Northern Parula last spring who would come to a whistle that imitated him. Our home security camera caught the moment when it actually landed on my camera lens one morning with Olive standing next to me! He stuck around for about 5 days before moving on to a breeding site further north.

Whether you are sitting in your backyard or safely able to go for a short walk along the local ball fields nearby to look into the thickets — the challenge and rewards of birding are always ready for you. Just you and your eyes are all you need, but a basic pair of binoculars enhance the experience, and a telephoto lens on a camera can definitely make things exciting. Personally, I really enjoy capturing the images to look at later but some of my friends are perfectly happy enjoying the bird in the moment.

My child loves getting out there and observing and I know yours will too. The more you learn, the more you want to learn, especially when you start checking off your bird list and the remaining birds are more elusive. This forces you to learn about habitat, timing, and food sources — even wind direction can affect where you may locate a bird on a given day.

I hope these tips and stories piqued your interest to get outside and discover the world of birding and bird language, and to bring your children along with you. Whether you're collecting different species sightings or tapping into your ancestral knowledge by observing the language of birds around you, there is a doorway to a deeper connection to nature, to well-being, and to the world around us right in your backyard. For another great resource, especially to share with your kids, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

As NEMO's Creative Content Director, Randy Gaetano is a passionate outdoorsman and advocate for conservation. He can usually be found either sitting quietly in a treestand — waiting for a deer ... or sitting quietly on a longboard — waiting for a wave.