Thursday, July 11, 2013

Connecting to Nature: Bird Language as One of Our "Universal Grammars"

The great linguist, Noam Chomsky, taught us that humans must possess a ‘universal grammar,’ because children are able to learn the complex nuances of language at such a surprisingly early age.  The only explanation, he argued, was an evolved predisposition to communicate this way, to navigate the spoken world before the age of two.  It seems our genetic encoding is especially evident when we consider aspects of our relationship to wild nature.  Long-time tracker and notable author, Jon Young, describes a set of intentional behaviors that, when done regularly, will foster ‘deep nature connection’ in humans.  One of these ‘core routines’ is the study of Bird Language, which he outlines in his lovely short book What the Robin Knows.  

Young claims that all humans possess an evolved and inherited capacity to understand and differentiate the five primary sounds of birds, to easily distinguish the local species that are making them, and to map the terrain from these sounds. Birds variously make sounds he describes as either: (1) juvenile begging, when young birds ask for food; (2) territorial aggression, to ward off unwanted ‘others,’; (3) songs; (4) companion or 'contact' calls, those regular 'all's well' messages during shared feeding; or (5) alarm calls.  This last category, alarms, is used by birds to warn other animals (not just other birds), of the location and behavior of a predator, such as a fox, raven, hawk, or bobcat.  Young once told me that he can step out of a dwelling in any suburban neighborhood, and within 10 seconds, know the exact location of the nearest Cooper’s Hawk.  This common bird of prey is an accipiter, hunting other birds by snatching them out of flight.  Once an alarm is sounded, an entire area becomes silent and devoid of movement, remaining this way until the predator has moved on.  Listening to bird language is not just about noting the tapestry of sounds, but also the location of silences.  For obvious reasons, bird language skills are well-developed among living tribal peoples. It was also a skill well-known to our ancestors, and it lies dormant in each of us.  As we re-awaken our innate capacity to comprehend the utterings of our feathered friends, we retrieve our rightful inheritance as people of a living planet, returning once again to our role as stewards of a bountiful and providing earth.   

Jon's wonderful book can be purchased here