Transition Families: Elements of Bird Language

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A few weeks ago I had the honour of hosting the Transition Families group again, this time in the woods of Victoria Park, Kitchener. The subject matter was understanding bird language in the environments we inhabit. Tips I’d picked up during a weekend workshop with Jon Young had already led me to an encounter with the Cooper’s Hawk that hangs out along the train tracks in that park, and I was excited to see if we could repeat the experience with a larger group.

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It was a cold Saturday morning, but eleven people came out to see what we could find. We crossed the raised bed of the tracks and descended into the forest (stroller and all!) Just as I was just about to begin giving instructions for the first game, a workshop participant grabbed my arm and spun me around, pointing silently but urgently. As I turned to follow his gaze, I glimpsed our guest of honour flapping up and away from the thicket next to the trail we’d just walked. It was the Cooper’s Hawk.

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That was a hard act to follow, but I led the group through a couple of games designed to get them moving and thinking like a bird: gathering food, keeping one eye on the baby birds and another on the hawk’s last known whereabouts, communicating the presence of food or danger through calls and alarms. The second game involved a full-out competition for food (represented here by foraged milkweed pods) between families of robins, chickadees, nest-robbing jays, and one lone, stealthy Cooper’s Hawk (me). It looks like Marlene was having a good time guarding her family’s nest.

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I, on the other hand, was working up a sweat trying to sneak up on those crafty birds.

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I find that a game like this one, also learned from Jon Young and his assistants, is a far more effective teaching tool than any lecture I could give. As we gathered to debrief the game, feeling a good deal warmer and more lively than when we’d gathered, some interesting themes emerged. How had the songbirds worked together to avoid two different kinds of predators? How had the jays turned the presence of a larger predator than themselves into an advantage? How had the hawk’s shifting whereabouts changed the playing field throughout the game?

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Our last activity for the morning was a listening exercise. We fanned out into the forest and found comfy spots to sit with our ears open. Taking notes on what transpired during each of three 10-minute intervals, which I announced with carefully-timed crow calls, we gathered in after the full thirty minutes to pool our observations. What emerged was a much more complex and multi-perspective sound picture than any of us could have created on our own. Highlights included a Northern Cardinal (NOCA) and a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees (BCCH), both of which overwinter in our area, a cat that disturbed the chickadees, and a very noisy train that disturbed the rest of us toward the end of the third period (horizontal purple arrow).

014And that was that. Several participants expressed a wish to do this workshop again in spring, when the weather is more conducive and there are more birds around. We were experiencing the tail end of the fall migration, and through the winter our neighbourhood cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers and sparrows will be our bird language teachers until the ‘snowbirds’ return from sunnier climes. Until then, sitting outside on your back steps or even watching a bird feeder from your kitchen window will start you on the road to understanding the strange and marvelous world of bird language.

Also posted to kwforestschool.ca

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