Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sparrowhawk Surprise

Trackers often talk about bird language. That is because birds are great indicators of what is happening in an area and they now their locality intimately. My own experience of bird language is largely intuitive. Before I ever heard the term 'bird language' I already used the calls and behaviors of animals to get information about events in my vicinity. I think bird language is in fact just another term for Awareness. Deepening Awareness and experience will slowly teach you bird language. It will also become obvious that it is not just about the birds but about all the animals you are aware of.

Sure, of all the animals about, the birds are the most vocal and often the most numerous so they dominate the propagation of an event with their calls and behavior. It is pretty interesting to see that the only species that does not generally take notice of and understands bird language are the humans. Well, we do but we have learned to ignore it to the point that we have almost forgotten how to revive it.

The fact that I am at the moment researching bird language specifically and more formally is caused by the fact that I am preparing advanced tracking and awareness courses. As is the case for many aspects of aboriginal tracking, things that I normally do intuitively and largely without too much conscious thought, are pretty difficult to recognize, formalize and teach. In the end it is all about Awareness and learning from experience.

To this end there were two books I looked forward to read. The first is "What The Robin Knows" by Jon Young and the second is the third book in the Discover Nature Awareness series of books, "Bird Language", written by my friend and colleague Geoffrey McMullan. The first book I am studying right now. The second, I hope will come out soon as I think that one will be closer to the bone for me. I do not personally know Jon Young but from his book I gather he is an avid birder and the same is true for Geoffrey. I, on the other hand, am not. I love birds and examine their behavior and individual traits every day but I could not name most of them to safe my life. It was funny that Jon Young in his book wrote that he had never met anybody who did not have the urge to immediately identify a new bird as soon it was observed. Well, I can't wait to meet him just to create precedence. My focus is more on the individual animal. I do of course recognize the species I meet but not by name. Starting in Young's book I was slightly overwhelmed by all the names of all the birds he talks about. In the end I simply told myself that this book could also be written without naming the birds as I intuitively know bird language is not about the specific calls each species makes.

What bird language is about is the intention of the calls: marking territory, calling a mate, aggression, begging for food and most interesting for the tracker, alarms. All animals, including us, will pick up on these intentions once we open up to them. We do not need to know the specifics. We simply get it as we are part of the mesh that is Nature.

So, This afternoon I was trying to identify these various intentions from the numerous birds around my house. I feed birds so there are plenty about, all trying to get sunflower seeds. Mostly small birds. There were birds singing but they were beyond my own plot in the forest. That makes sense as singing is territorial and my garden is clearly a no man's land where all birds need to accept each other somewhat if they want the seeds. That does not mean they are quiet. They make a lot of companion calls, constantly checking up on the others. What I was hoping for though is that a known cat would walk into the garden. I was sure that that would generate alarm calls. It did not happen. What did happen was far more intense.

All of a sudden a great tit made an alarm call. All the birds flew up and landed in the bushes around the place where the seeds were. The squirrel that was eating only one meter in front of me jolted but did not move. In fact he was the first to continue eating but he clearly understood the warning. Slowly the birds returned to the heap of seeds and started eating again. That one great tit was still edgy and constantly looking at a certain tree. I tried to find what he had seen but I could not. Ten minutes passed and all was forgotten. Until, suddenly, the squirrel looked up from his bowl and looked at me as if to ask: "did you notice that?". The birds reacted not. The squirrel wasted no time and ran away into the bushes. At that moment I felt, in a split second, an enormous tension building up. Just as when you get a surge of adrenaline. I was in peripheral vision so I had a wide angle view of the garden. In this view was now a very fast moving object. I noticed what it was first when it hit straight in he middle of the seeds. It was also first at that moment that the alarm calls screeched through the air. It was like an explosion of birds all flying away from the seeds. What was left was another bird, a sparrowhawk. Although I could not confirm it I think he got a small bird as he took of a few seconds after landing and perched in a nearby birch for a minute and then flew of. All song had stopped and his path could be followed by the alarms he caused on his way.

I wonder, did the great tit notice the sparrow hawk ten minutes earlier? How did the hawk manage to so surprise all the birds but not the squirrel? What was the squirrel's cue?

Interpreting intention and unraveling concentric rings. That is bird language, a tool for all trackers. It is the tongue of Nature and all living things know it by Heart.

Peter Friebel          

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