The Language of Birds

Mar 01

Yesterday, I saw flocks of birds, their species unknown to me, wing their way across the blue walls of heaven, headed south and east for equally unknown havens. There were decades of them, flying in unison, engaged in a singular mind and activity that, no doubt, have been used in migrations for millions of years. I watched them come from the northwest, flap over head and then fly out of sight beyond the eastern treelines.

What did it mean? I found myself wondering. I look for signs in the world around me. A shooting star, the appearance of a person or object just after we have thought about them or it, a coin in the street, a dream full of chthonic and archetypal meaning. Augury, the signs of the birds in the sky no less than any other part of the living world that continually reveals itself and by doing so initiates us to deeper levels within as we spiral through our lives. The birds give portents and omens, the creation of cities and alphabets comes from them. The language of birds is an interior one, and the men and women who understand it know what the gods know and dwell in mythology where the temporal world segues with the eternal.              

The first bird I remember was a rooster that lived nearby. I was in my crib, shadowed in the blue light of early dawn, the rooster was crowing. Its call waking me up-not just for the day, but for the life ahead of me. It always seemed fitting that this was the first bird I knew-although I never saw it, just heard its sound, and can still hear it today when I think about it.

When I was young, there were long stretches of silence and solitude. The world seemed, on occasion, overly vast, unconfined, sprawled about me in gigantic proportions. A little boy on a hill by himself in the looming dread and sparse chill that accompanies the later days of fall, when the early afternoon just after school is empty and alone. Amid the dead brown lawns and vacant houses, I often looked up into the blue reaches of the sky. There, gracefully tacking in widening circles was a vulture. Often, vultures, associated with death and scavenging, are maligned creatures. But this seems to be a projection of our own fears. Taken for what it is, as the vulture soars in the highest planes of heaven, it is silently meditating, taking it all in, its flight is unhurried. It brought peace, calm, reflection.

There was a single birdhouse in the backyard where I grew up. A simple, box shaped, plain brown, wooden place nailed to a pine tree. Cardinals nested there every year. The brilliant red plumage of the male stood out for all the more of its glory against the dull brown. I would marvel at how it seemed that only cardinals liked the house, they were the only birds that ever occupied it. Later, I learned that cardinals mate for life, and so it was the same family that lived there, year after year, raising generations of cardinals in the house we put out there for them. To this day, I feel a connection with the cardinals-as if by providing them with a place to live for such a long time, I’d earned their friendship and knew them better than others.

One of the great bird sightings in the sky is the great blue heron. It flaps ponderously, impossibly lifting the length of itself and then winging onward. When I see the heron, I think of how the Egyptians regarded the ibis as the bird of wisdom, how Hermes devised the alphabet from the leg movements of cranes. Here in America, surely, the great blue heron is a bird of wisdom that is our very own, and watching its flight and stances we can learn things heretofore unknown to us.

A red pleated woodpecker makes its home amid a row of high standing oaks to the southwestern point of my home. High above, it knocks out its meals from the wood, like a workman with a hammer, day in and day out. I recently learned their primary food is carpenter ants, of which, there are many in the area-once, there was a gigantic nest of them in the broken stump of an oak tree that fell in a storm.  The woodpecker has lived there for sometime, and seems to be undisturbed by the red-tailed hawk that, in its turn, lives in the northwestern part of the yard. The hawk announces its presence with triumphant screeching, and while this may be a way to warn others away from its territory, I am quite certain that he simply enjoys shrieking, its his way of exulting in the day, saying hello to the world as the other birds, squirrels, rabbits and small mammals dive for cover.  At night, the owls engage in a similar activity, and hoot themselves to the night, calling to each other in cries that sound like there is at least some sort of conversation taking place. This is the neighborhood of birds, where they know about each other. Along with mourning doves, mockingbirds, crows, nighthawks, listening in is hearing about a voice of nature, a music of the earth that with frogs, whales, coyotes and more is the chorus of life with all its undefined meaning-the meaning is contained in the thing itself and by seeing and hearing and experiencing it we have that meaning within as well.

We have a hummingbird feeder near the house and a ruby throated hummingbird darts to it furtively. At first, if we were near the window or moved at all, it would shoot away. But over time the little guy figured out we meant no harm and that we were just observers. No need to fear, please, hover all you want and drink your fill. My children marvel at the bird, seeing it at the feeder is a brief moment of wonder-and brevity, perhaps, sometimes should accompany wonder to truly leave its marvel in the soul. Like the cardinals from my youth, I feel a connection to the bird and see in its flight the language of birds.


  1. jason emond /

    Love the vocabulary and descriptions!

  2. Peter /

    thanks Jason!

  3. Peter, my first time here, and how beautiful. I too, feel a deep connection to the bird world and often note the whereabouts of various feathered friends during the day. And during travels. Birds definitely offer a look at the world that can feel very mystical. Oh, if there were as many species of humans. Then! Then! Merci!

  4. Lucile Barker /

    This is so lovely and feels wonderfully immediate. As someone who has come to birds late in life, I have more of an emotional pull than a scientific one. I could feel the emotion here. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  5. Peter /

    @Dorette: Thanks so much for the kind words! I feel that paying attention to birds often comes with the startling revelation that they were there all along with their songs, feathers and generally bringing enjoyment to the background of life. This, in turn, brings me to a wider view of life and how it is informed spiritually in general.

  6. Peter /

    @Lucille: thank you! I’ve always felt an affinity for nature-I think from long hours spent in the woods when I was a kid. My connection is also far more emotional than scientific, and to me the other animals we share the planet with always seem to have a spiritual message they want to impart.

  7. Beautifully written. I, too, note the activities of birds, quite often crows, of late, and suspect their are messages in their movements.

Leave a Reply