We’ve been talking to birds a lot lately. Between video chats, e-learning, Zoom meetings, board games, drawing, cooking, arguing, and laughing, my family and I go on walks around the neighborhood and chat with our feathered friends. We’re under strict shelter-in-place orders and we’re not sure if we should even be taking walks. There’s so much uncertainty about what actions or inactions to take these days. Every time we see another pedestrian, we cross the street like frightened rabbits trying to keep our distance. But, despite our zigzagging routes, we cherish our daily walks. They are keeping us sane.
My wife is an environmental educator and she recently brought home a couple of Audubon bird calls. They are small, dreidel-like objects with a red birchwood body, a zinc plug at the top, and a screw on the bottom. They feel like a classic piece of Americana—which they are: “handmade in the USA in the same way for over 60 years.” And their genius lies in their simplicity. Turn the plug against the wood and the device comes to life. Chirp! Cheep! Trrrrilll! Tweet! I guess the sounds don’t mimic any particular bird species, but to a six-year-old and a three-year-old, it’s pure magic. And we all need a little magic in our lives right now. The first time my six-year-old daughter, Olivia, turned the call, her eyes lit up and she bolted out the door ready to talk to some birds. Margot, my three-year-old daughter, on the other hand, immediately opened the rosin capsule that comes with the call and dumped it all over her hands. Three year olds.
The first bird we meet on our walk is an American crow. Corvus brachyrhynchos, according to our field guide. The bird call definitely doesn’t make crow sounds. As we twist the gadget into a series of squeaks, the crow looks at us quizzically from the tree top and laughs: Caw, caw. The field guide says crows can make 23 distinct calls, each one part of an elaborate language only partially known to the human ear. All I hear is mocking at our futile attempts to communicate across species. I’ve also read that crows sometimes hold funerals for their corvid brethren and sistren—not as a way to memorialize, but as a way to measure potential threats. My mind goes to dark places and I think about all of the mourning that can’t happen in the midst of this threat. My daughters and I wait for a dog walker to cross our path—six feet away.
Next, we encounter a playful robin hopping about the ground. Olivia turns the call (Peep! Cheep! Chirp!) and the Turdus migratorius cocks her head to the side, curious as to what these humans are trying to say. The bird goes about her business, running and stopping, running and stopping, in that robin way of doing wind sprints across someone’s lawn. Margot mimics her and then suddenly the robin turns her orange belly toward us and responds with a sharp Yeep! She’s probably sounding the alarm, but we convince ourselves that we’ve cracked the code to inter-species communication. We applaud, the robin runs away, and Margot nicknames her Lollipop. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
We see another family we know from the neighborhood and we do the social distance dance as we talk about school, work, and life on the other side of this. The kids so badly want to play with each other, but they shy away when they hear the word “virus”— the bogeyman in this day-to-day fairytale. The family points us toward a hawk they saw a couple blocks away and we rush toward the scene, not even close to containing our excitement.
We turn down a street dotted with sycamores, their mottled bark capturing the rays of the morning sun. And then we hear it—cak-cak-cak-cak-cak-cak-cak—a good five seconds of a call unlike any other we’ve heard in the neighborhood. We wander down the middle of the street, slowly spinning in circles, looking to the trees…and then we see her. Accipiter cooperii, a Cooper’s hawk perched on a branch, holding court in the canopy.
Her long tail stretches toward the ground and her eyes ignore us as she scans the shrubs and sidewalks below. Olivia meekly tries the bird call, but the hawk pays no mind. She cannot be bothered with our frivolity. Until suddenly, she caks again—even louder than before. And this time her call is answered by another. Another hawk swoops down on the branch gripping an unlucky bird in his talons. It’s the male and he’s delivering a fresh meal (aerial Uber Eats). This means that there must be a nest close by. We survey the treetops and, sure enough, there is a giant hawk’s nest with its sticks and twigs jutting out of an oak tree. The male takes off, darting down the street to fulfill another order, and leaves his partner to her meal. We watch in awe as plucked feathers float down around us and softly land at our feet.
On our way home, Olivia and Margot gush about the neighbor hawks. They can’t wait to tell their classmates via Zoom. As they recount the scene to each other, we hear a chatter from a nearby lilac bush. We stop to find a gregarious black-capped chickadee talking to everyone and no one in particular. The girls fire up their bird calls and jump into a lengthy conversation with the feathered friend. Back and forth: Chirp! Cheep! Chirrup! Chirree! The chickadee happily responds to the girls’ questions. They talk about the warm weather (“enjoyable, but it won’t last”), the spring flowers (“beautiful, but really looking forward to the caterpillars”), the lack of humans (“interesting, but a bit sad”), and the neighborhood hawks (“alarming, but we’ve got lots of eyes on them”). We have to cut the conversation short because it’s time to get back to “computer school”—but as the chickadee bids adieu, so long, farewell in avian vernacular, we know that communing with the birds has been the best lesson we’ve had in a long time.