There was a dead rabbit in the middle of the road today. I suspected such a thing, nearby, just out of sight, and edible, because I noticed some crows taking off whenever a car went by. Then, when I went over, I could see the rabbit that they were feasting on between drive-bys.

I had been looking for rabbits lately, because of this: the cat had switched to hanging out by the upstairs window, the better to observe the just arriving Juncos (snow birds, it is fall). She had previously spent most of her time observing rabbits from the lower, ground level windows, until just the other day when, rather suddenly, all the rabbits disappeared. Until then, there was always a rabbit or two. In fact, the entire city had been recently invaded by rabbits, according to several reports, and now they seemed to be disappearing quickly. This, I assume, means that the coyotes finally got busy. Or, an epidemic of tularemia. Either way, something happened.

I once had a cat that was partly outdoors on Cape Cod. Well, the cat was indoors, but would escape. We’d go looking for it and always find it in a bush (a different bush every time) surrounded by no rabbits. All the other bushes would have rabbits nearby. But not the one with the cat in it. (Until, again, the coyotes showed up and ruined the rabbit-test method of finding the cat!)

Have you seen the film Dead Birds? See it if you can. This is a very important ethnographic film, of the old style, by Gardner, of a place in Highland New Guinea. Part of the story actually has to do with live birds, not dead ones, and how they are used by sentries at the outskirts if the village lands, during times of conflict, to detect the arrival of enemy combatants. You watch the birds, and you are watching the hidden predators.

Or you can listen to them. Or you can listen to the monkeys. Anything with an alarm call. I could engage you with story after story, if you and I both had the time, of finding very interesting and elusive critters out in the bush, mainly in Africa, by following up on the predator avoidance behavior of primates or birds.

And, this brings us to what I think is one of the best bird books ever.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young is an exploration of nature based on this premise: the robin knows everything about its environment, and this information is regularly conveyed via the bird’s call, or its behavior. By observing that behavior or understanding the robin’s vocalizations, you can poach that information and also know a lot about the immediate environment, which may be your own back yard, the area near your camping site, the wooded gully the enemy may approach you by, or a nearby park.

And, of course, it isn’t just the robin, it is all the animals including birds, insects, and everything else. But Young is talking about birds, and it is certainly true that in most or possibly all habitats, it is the birds that, owing to their diurnal and highly visible and sound oriented nature, are telling you all this information about your mutual surroundings as well as about the bird itself.

To me, birding (and nature watching in general) is not so much about lengthening one’s list (though that is always fun) but, rather, about observing and understanding behavior. Young explores this, teaches a great deal about it, and places this mode of observation in the context of countless stories, or potential stories, about the world you are sharing with the birds you are watching.

This is a four or five dimensional look at a multidimensional world. Lucky for us humans, as primates, we share visual and audio modalities, and mostly ignore odor, and we have overlapping ranges in those modalities (to varying degrees). But birds fly (most of them, anyway) and are small and fast and there are many of them. In many places we live, we are the only diurnal visually-oriented non-bird. Indeed, while I’m sure my cat communes with the rabbits at a level I can’t possibly understand, I’m pretty sure I get the birds in ways she could not possibly get her paws around. (Which is why we don’t let her out of the house. She would prefer to eat them, rather than appreciate them!)

From the publisher, about the author:

Growing up near the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, Jon Young studied as a tracker and naturalist. For three decades, he has taught and mentored children and adults, combining Native skills practiced worldwide with the tools of modern field ecology, emphasizing the nearly lost art of understanding bird and animal language. The founder of OWLink Media, 8 Shields Institute, and the Shikari Tracking Guild, he consults with programs around the world. Jon has written or produced numerous books, audio, and multimedia projects. His website is www.birdlanguage.com. Married with six children, he lives in the woods above Santa Cruz, California.

Lots of science in this book, well documented and referenced. Simple black and white but very engaging graphics. So far my favorite bird book of the year.

Comments

  1. #1 Bruce Jensen
    United States
    September 18, 2016

    Wholeheartedly agree! Observation of Nature and it’s citizens, with patience and and open mind, is among the most rewarding and instructive pursuits of all. As John Muir said:

    “Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.”

  2. […] Another bird book, that I’ve also labeled as the best bird book of the year, is What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young. This is an exploration of nature based on this premise: the robin knows everything about its environment, and this information is regularly conveyed via the bird’s call, or its behavior. By observing that behavior or understanding the robin’s vocalizations, you can poach that information and also know a lot about the immediate environment, which may be your own back yard, the area near your camping site, the wooded gully the enemy may approach you by, or a nearby park. (My full review is HERE.) […]

  3. […] I review Yong’s book here. This is a fantastic book that you will really enjoy if you have any interest at all in nature or birds. Or not. You’ll still enjoy it. […]

  4. #4 Dan
    December 20, 2016

    I’m betting Young learned his tracking skills with Tom Brown, Jr. down in the Pine Barrens. I took four tracking and survival courses there many years ago and found them invaluable for field work (even though you had to filter out Tom’s BS from his actual knowledge).

    The book sounds good, and will put that on my Christmas wish list. Thanks, Greg.