What the robin knows--and how you can get him not to hate you

I feel like a work-at-home scam pitchman when I tell you that Jon Young’s book  What the Robin Knows will enable you–yes, you, the person who just wants to see more and can’t tell the difference among the 87 types of migrating warblers–to figure out what the birds are saying.

What would have to spend to understand the messages birds  are broadcasting to each other when they sing and whistle? Would you pay thousands of dollars to take a Berlitz for bird language or go away to a cabin for months?

What if I told you that by spending random half hours in your own backyard listening to chatter, with the help of Young’s What the Robin Knows you would eventually decode their signals and get to know the characters in the soap opera that happens every day outside your window. But wait, that’s not all! You’ll also be able to use your new gentle way to get to travel quietly among birds everywhere, which will let you see more animals.

I first encountered Jon Young’s work maybe 10 years ago when a much more advanced birder friend passed me an absurdly enormous cassette tape series on bird language. Young is a protege of America’s most famous tracker, Tom Brown, Jr. When Brown got too busy and famous to teach everyone who wanted to learn from him at his New Jersey Tracker School, Young offered classes out west at the Wilderness Awareness School he co-founded in Washington in 1983.

So the tapes were pretty hard core, new agey and intimidating for me. I felt like I was learning bird language in a class taught in Italian (which I also don’t understand). But there was also something real there.

I was fascinated by what Young was saying, that birds and animals only do what is necessary to survive, so of course their communication is meaningful and essential. Other birders figure out which species is singing; Young explains what they are saying. Birds and animals listen to and sometimes acknowledge each other–except for humans, who stomp into the woods, disrupt the party and don’t say hi to anyone. The twitter tweet concept is pretty close to what birds (and some other prey animals) do: they broadcast alarms. It’s not that the robin tells the elk to look out for the jerk on the trail. The robin is just complains about the person and the elk picks it up and retweets it.  If you don’t want to annoy them all, you have to behave like a gentle person to even the small birds.

But I was the typical American lousy, unc0operative student. I took what I wanted. I didn’t quite follow all his his instructions about going to a favorite “sit spot” and writing down what happens every 10 minutes. I excused myself because my fire escape was my yard and my nature spot was in Manhattan’s tiny and unruly Tompkins Square Park. What could I keep track of there, aside from pigeons and starlings?

Since then, there’s been an explosion of interest in wildlife skills, thanks to Tom Brown, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv and a ton of academic research proving what the trackers have been saying, that animals really do communicate.  Middle America found its need for nature. Wilderness teachers, who traditionally mentor a handful of students for years, however, didn’t find way to reach us.

“‘I realized the Tom Brown story was not a mainstream story,” Young says. “How can we help the more average person in America? They’re not going to want to build a survival shelter. The average homeowner is not going to relate to raccoon poop, except that it makes a mess in their garage.”

What the Robin Knows isn’t just the hardcover version of the tape. Young says he went through an identity crisis, trying to figure out where he fit in the growing movement of people reconnecting Americans with the outdoors. Around the country tracking schools are now reviving ancient skills, including  White Pine in Maine where Young’s collaborator Dan Gardoqui teaches. Young worked with educators, consultants and editors for years simplifying the message and creating a program even I can understand and hope to accomplish. He also worked with the world’s premiere bird recorder, Elliot Lang, to create a database of some of the various expressions for each species. (You can check it out at Birdlanguage.com.)

“Start where you are,” Young says now. “My favorite sit spots nowadays are right at your front door.” In the book he tells people to keep it simple and that the sit spot shouldn’t be more than  minutes from their door.

Young breaks  down bird language into five categories: songs, companion calls, territorial, begging for food and alarm. The first four are all normal background chatter. Most of what birds say all day long seems to parallel what humans say when they get a cell phone: I’m here, where are you? The really interesting stuff happens during the alarms. Young even helps you figure out what creature is in the woods by the shape of the birds’ escape route. Are they hopping up a few feet? Or coming down from the tops of trees?

Humans all too often create a “bird plow” effect, Young says, pushing freaked out birds away from them, and setting off alarms that all other wildlife listen to.

One of the advantages of using a sitting quietly in one spot, becoming more aware of everything around you, is that you and the birds get used to each other and calm down.

That simple act is the gist of Young’s message. Though, he is quite generous in his teachings, throwing in specific exercises, fun bird language anecdotes, the sound library and just a lot of strange, useful bird knowledge.

After following some of the practices, I heard a big kerfuffle of robins and cardinals in a tree above a crowded Brooklyn playground. Then I saw a red-tailed hawk fly off the branch, swoop over the jungle gym to catch a rat. Nobody else seemed to notice, but I took my daughter Ginger out to see the hawk and its prey (she’s too young to realize that it, too, was a living creature). She also got to see the robins being brave and trying to scare the menace away from their families.

When I got to interview Young, one of the most fun parts for me was when he told me that before this upsurge in outdoor interest, people he knew would be supportive of him, but they thought his work was a waste of time. One New Jersey neighbor would tell him that his mother was worried about him. I am tickled by this scene because here’s this shamanistic mountain man getting hassled by suburban gossips. He might be just perfect to bridge the gap between contemporary American families who commute from the exurbs to the city with the wilderness they left behind.

Check out tracking classes at Tracker School in NJ, Wilderness Awareness School in WA, or White Pine in ME

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