'What The Robin Knows' author Jon Young, right, and Josh Lane. Photo by Traci Hukill
The Westside is foggy and cold when Jon Young and I meet on Delaware Avenue, at the back entrance to Natural Bridges State Beach, for a morning lesson in bird language. With him is Josh Lane, a mentor at Young’s Bonny Doon–based 8 Shields Institute, a nonprofit promoting connection with nature.
The coastal scrub meadow behind the estuary is quiet, and I’m thinking that’s pretty standard for an overcast morning, but within seconds Young and Lane are pointing to birds I can’t see and identifying calls I can barely hear and formulating a narrative from the data. A Cooper’s hawk, they agree, has swept through here within the last hour, looking for a songbird breakfast.
“That’s what we’re looking at—this patch of quiet,” Young says, motioning to the meadow, which, come to think of it, is very quiet. While the robin, quail and Wilson’s warbler in the woods to our left chirp and trill away in a chorus of normal “baseline” behavior, the birds to our right have zipped it. “He was spotted, and they’re waiting to see where he’ll show up,” Young says.
Asked why the fuss over a Cooper’s hawk, who is after all a resident of this meadow, Young thinks a minute. “Think about the fact that we’re really terrified of serial killers,” he says. “That’s the reputation of the Cooper’s hawk, because it lives right among them. Imagine if there were someone on Pacific Avenue who’s 8 feet tall and stronger than you and faster than you, and it eats a person every day.”
To make matters worse, they hunt in pairs. And here’s the other thing about the Cooper’s hawk, Young tells me: every habitat has one. It may go by a different name, have different colored feathers and lay a different number of eggs, but it’s the accipiter (a fast-moving, agile bird of prey) that feeds on songbirds and has every small winged creature in its range terrorized. The telltale patterns of silence along bird-rich corridors recur across ecosystems and continents.
With his level gray gaze, neat build and boyish good looks, Young could be either 14 or 34. In fact he’s closer to 54 and literally wrote the book on bird language. What The Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22) hit shelves on May 8. It contains the fruits of years of study that began in 1971 with a chance meeting on a street in New Jersey with Tom Brown, Jr., the wilderness survival expert who went on to found the Tracker School. Jon Young has been listening to and watching nature very, very closely for four decades and paying special attention to birds.
What The Robin Knows gives a fascinating overview of animal behavior in the wild and explains five types of calls birds make, four of which are more or less ignored by everyone but total bird geeks: songs, companion calls, territorial aggression calls, juvenile begging and alarms. It also links to a website with nifty examples of all five types of calls for a variety of common birds.
The book is the distillation of Young’s bird knowledge, but it’s not bird language on a silver platter. Young tells readers the only way to really get it is to observe birds. A lot. He advises starting by sitting in the same spot at the same time every day for 45 minutes, watching and listening. It's best if you can do it for years. Only then will the birds start to relax around you—something they rarely do when humans come barreling through their habitat—enough for you to get to know their more relaxed and intimate routines, and those of other creatures like rabbits and foxes. Only then do you get to see the wild things that are happening in your own back yard or corner park.
As we walk through the meadow behind Natural Bridges, Young and Lane point out terms I recognize from the book: the “shape of the silence” over the meadow; the “sentinel,” or high perching, behavior that marks the edge of the danger zone; the tentative returns to normal behavior by ground-feeding birds as the minutes pass. A white-tailed kite with a nest not far away scolds a red tailed hawk, and Young and Lane chuckle. Across the meadow, when birds race out of a cypress thicket en masse, they nod. The Cooper’s hawk again.
It’s a whole different way of experiencing reality, this receptive awareness, and I ask Young at the end of our walk if all this bird language business in the book isn’t really a clever cover for another message, one about approaching the world more gently. He grins a little, busted.
“It’s about being sensitive. It’s being connected,” he says. “Learning bird language is always accompanied by a shift in conduct.
“Let’s say you’re a busy dad, and you work hard and your kids talk to you because they love you, but they don’t feel connected. Something’s missing, they’re not getting through. And you go and you do bird language. And you have to listen to the shape of silence. And all of a sudden you start to see and hear the shape of silence in other parts of your life: ‘Oh my God, I offended this towhee so much that it flew away from me.’ And now, when I walk into a room, I’m going to pay attention to what’s happening. I’m not going to do all the talking.”
The 8 Shields Institute that Young started, and where Lane works as a mentor, is all about getting people to listen, in multiple ways, in order to connect to nature, other people and themselves. Bird language, it seems, is just one of the methods.
“If someone becomes committed to bird language,” Young says simply, “they become a better person.”
JON YOUNG reads from What The Robin Knows
Tuesday, May 22, 7:30pm