In March, while I was in Florida, I wrote about the birds I was seeing in my short stay on the beach. Now, it’s May, and school is out for the semester, and occurrence that leaves me briefly at loose ends for a few days. I become accustomed to the routine, to the joy of the work and to seeing students every day, and when school is over, it often brings deeply mixed feelings.
This week, however, I had the joy of having my son Jeff visiting, his visit nicely overlapping with the last days of school and the first days of vacation. Jeff and I spent a number of mornings out in our backyard, where he worked on tanning an elk hide. I was reading aloud to him from What the Robin Knows by Jon Young. Among other things, this book is about becoming attuned to the world around us, about learning to understand what birds are saying beyond the cacophony of sound that we usually can hear, and which, for the most part, we not heed. Jon Young exhorts us to listen and to learn to differentiate the different kinds of bird language, not just calls and cries, but the bird conversations that happen all around us.
As I read, Jeff pointed out the pair of robins who were pecking around in the grass. In a more ignorant time in my life, I would certainly known them as robins, but I would not have seen them as individual robins. Jeff and I began to call the pair “Bob and Betty.” We talked about the limits of Bob and Betty’s territory. At one point, Jeff told me to watch as he walked closer and closer to Bob. At first, Bob hopped away, but when it was clear that Jeff was coming closer, he “spoke” to him. It was obvious, listening and watching, that Bob said, “Hey, you’re in my space, back off.” Jeff continued closer, and Bob got more agitated. Because Jeff does not routinely torture animals, he backed off at that point, before Bob felt it necessary to fly off. Jeff came back and asked me if I had understood that exchange. There was no question. I am not an expert birder, by any means, but I didn’t have to be one in order to understand Bob’s comments.
Meanwhile, all through this activity, the little house wren continued caroling, pausing, it seemed only to take a breath.
The next day Jeff and I went out to an abandoned town site north of Sheridan. No buildings are left in the circle of trees where, up until the late 70’s a community of about 500 people lived. We have been out here, he and I, many times. In the early 80’s the school building still stood, and we rambled about in the four school rooms where math papers lay scattered on the floor and the desks had been over turned. Now, all that’s left of the school is a pile of bricks
We wandered around, not covering a lot of ground, listening and talking about what we were hearing. Jeff pointed out three yellow warblers, each about 50 yards from the other, singing in willows along the creek bank. Jeff asked me to think about what those spaces meant about yellow warbler territory. Another house wren caroled away. Then Jeff told me to point my binoculars at tall branch in a tree. “What’s in that nest?” he asked. “You know it, Mom, long bill, black mask.” “I’d guess it’s a heron, but..” I said. He let me guess a few more times until I knew I was right. He didn’t tell me, but let me figure it out. Then we saw two more heron nests. (A gathering of heron nests is called a rookery.) Then suddenly, the warblers and the wrens stopped all their noise. We looked up as three osprey circled the sky. Jeff nodded, and told me that when predators approach, songbirds become completely quiet.
But as we watched the herons, they seemed totally unperturbed by the osprey. Then Jeff told me to pay attention again, and he began walking toward the herons’ nests. It would have been impossible for him to reach them. They were at least 75 feet in the air, but the closer Jeff got to the nest trees, the more agitated the herons became. They croaked their warning noises at him just the way Bob had in our backyard. Jeff backed off, and they calmed down. It struck us as interesting that they found a predator on the ground more of a threat than the ospreys in the air.
While it is a joy to learn all this, and to learn it from someone who is one of the very best teachers I know, I find more to this story than just learning to be more attentive to birds and what they are saying. Since Jeff has gone off to his summer job as a naturalist in Montana, I have heard house wrens almost everywhere I have gone. One sang its heart out in one of the spruce trees near the college this morning. More than that though, I find I am more attentive to everything around me. I am more attentive to how the air feels and what it tells me about impending rain. As a teacher, I have the obligation to become ever more attentive to everything my students tell me, not just their words, but their gestures, their silences. Do my students stop talking when they fear a predator? Does the happy before-class chatter stop abruptly when I enter the room, or do they allow me to participate and engage with them? I want to be part of the call and response of the daily conversation, not be the osprey that engenders silence. I always want to really hear what they are saying.