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Amy Roberts: Essential messages from the birds

Many years ago when I worked in TV news, the producer who wrote the copy for my newscast would often use a segue that made me cringe. (It is still used in the industry, and I still wince when I hear it.)

Across the teleprompter I’d see the words “switching gears,” which were somehow supposed to help viewers mentally leap from coverage about a gruesome murder to a minute-long feature on a pig that paints. Transitions from hard news to a fluff piece are difficult to be sure, but I never understood how an obscure reference about driving a manual vehicle made them any less jolting. And, if you’ve ever seen me drive a stick shift, you’d know there was nothing smooth about the shifting of gears anyway.

Ultimately though, sometimes there is simply no other way to announce you’re moving on. And so, cringeworthy as it might be, this week I’m “switching gears” to a new topic. I gave the novel coronavirus the ink it deserved — eight or more weeks as my subject. There’s nothing new to add to the conversation; it is time to start another one. Though admittedly, COVID-19 might have been involved in the conception of this new topic.

Like most everyone else, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home. Working from my kitchen table has provided me a daily glimpse into an entirely new and complex backyard ecosystem I barely acknowledged before, much less appreciated. Prior to being quarantined in my home, I had generally assumed the intimate connection with nature I seek required a passport. Particularly as the interactions relate to birds.

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Birds still communicate essential messages about their environment, we’ve just tuned them out.”

A few years ago I was in the African bush taking a tracking course, desperately trying to read footprints in the sand. “You damn well better be confident in how long ago those prints were left there,” the class trainer advised me. “Otherwise, you’re leading this group to their funeral.”

Not wishing to ignite a charge from startled cape buffalo or offer any of my classmates up as a leopard’s dinner, I asked for help. “It’s been windy all morning and it just rained. Forget the prints. Study the birds,” the trainer advised.

Identifying birds and analyzing their behavior and language quickly became the focal point of that particular bushwalk lesson. My classmates and I consulted our books and apps and attempted to tap into long-buried knowledge and instinct. Eventually we put it all together: Red-billed oxpeckers were all around us. These birds eat ticks off their mammalian hosts, so their presence was a clear indication buffalo, giraffe, rhinos, or another large herbivore was nearby. Those same birds will sound an alarm call when a threat is detected, alerting their host to a predator. The warning calls were synced with our movements and had quieted down when we stopped moving, so it was likely they were for us and not a lurking cat.

Identifying birds and understanding the meaning behind their vocalizations — song, courtship, internal politics, a juvenile demanding dinner, or an alarm — is an ancient and fascinating science that kept humans alive for millions of years. Birds still communicate essential messages about their environment, we’ve just tuned them out. Which is a shame, because they really are sentries that provide understanding beyond our front door. Including our own backyards.

I was pretty bummed when I had to cancel a birding trip to Borneo last month. I was looking forward to checking several more species off my list. Realizing it might be awhile before I’d be traveling again, I decided to start birding in my backyard — grabbing the binoculars every time I saw movement in the pine tree, listening in on the robin’s chatter early in the morning, recognizing unique magpies and trying to identify them as individuals based on their behavior.

It’s a different experience with birds and nature than those I typically pursue. The stakes aren’t quite as high, but that isn’t to say it’s any less rewarding. And, if nothing else, I always know when the neighbor’s cat is outside.

Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.


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