Avian Teachers: On What We Can Learn from Birds

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I am speeding down a dark Vermont road, hurtling through a star-studded October night on an urgent quest: to witness the banding of the smallest owl in the Northeast, the northern saw-whet. Five of my most bird-crazed college students are stuffed into my Toyota Matrix, one girl curled shrimplike in the hatchback. One student works at a birding gear store. Another knew nothing about birds until he discovered a large barred owl in the campus forest during his first semester. He started following Barry the Barred Owl for hours, every day, filling my inbox with photos of Barry hunting, Barry musing, Barry ripping apart a cedar waxwing. As I drive, we shout out species’ names to a birdcall CD in our game Name That Bird. A shy freshman squeezed into a corner watches silently, eyes as round as a young owl’s.

It is a big night because this will be our first saw-whet. One of the most common owls in the northern United States, it is also one of the most mysterious, confounding scientists and avid birdwatchers. Robin-sized, it lives in the woods all around us, yet we rarely see it. The owl can be six feet above you and still invisible. With feathers the shade of tree bark, it simply blends into the trunk, like a small woody knot.

Scientists barely understand the basics about saw-whets: where and when most of them migrate; how many there are (David Brinker of Project Owlnet estimates the global population at 2 to 5 million based on banding records); how old they are when they start to breed; how many owlets they’ll raise in a lifetime; or even how long that lifetime lasts (the oldest captive lived to be sixteen). But we do know some pretty weird random stuff.

A graduate student in Appalachia watched owls storing their food on branches—mostly mice, but also bats, squirrels, and birds—while other scientists observed owls defrosting that prey in winter by sitting on top of it like a feathered microwave. And in 1903 an Ohio fishing boat captain watched a flock of tiny saw-whets land on the steamship Helena while it was crossing Lake Huron.

What if we were as smart as birds—or at least smart enough to learn from them?

The weirdest of all is John James Audubon’s story. In his famous 1838 book, Birds of America, he wrote: “This species evinces a strong and curious propensity to visit the interior of our cities. I have known some caught alive in the Philadelphia Museum, as well as in that of Baltimore, and, whilst at Cincinnati, I had one brought to me which had been taken from the edge of a cradle, in which a child lay asleep, to the no small astonishment of the mother.”

My students and I are arriving at the banding station during peak fall migration. The temperature is in the mid-50s. The sky is clear. And the wind is blowing eight miles per hour from the north, ideal for owls flying south at night, and for owl banders, bundled up all over the Northeast. The banders hide in bushes near invisible spider-web nets forty feet long and six feet tall. Ears perked, they sip hot chocolate and wait for the sudden whooshing of wings, an owl lured in by the saw-whet’s call—an eerie, high, monotonous toot—playing on hidden recorders.

We park in a muddy field and a series of handmade signs reading “OWLS” leads us to a shadowy shrub-lined clearing surrounding an old red barn. The banding station is a card table illuminated by floodlights. There is a s’mores station at an adjoining table, with Hershey bars, graham crackers, and bags of large marshmallows. Across the clearing, wizened birders sit in lawn chairs around a fire, roasting marshmallows and swapping stories.

I expect a grizzled veteran bander behind the banding table, a taciturn tall, bearded natural resource agency type sporting a khaki vest with many pockets. Instead, a strawberry-haired girl of thirteen holds court. She draws herself tall to address the crowd and explains that “owl extractors” are checking the spider-web nets nearby, every fifteen minutes. They should catch an owl soon and will bring it to this table so she can do a health check before banding the bird and releasing it.

Three hours later, the girl bander asks my students if they’d like to help release a captive, a furious female saw-whet who has been clicking and clacking her black beak while being weighed, measured, and banded. The bander tells my students to kneel on the ground in a tight circle around a low stool. She has them extend one hand, palm up, fingertips pointed toward the center of the stool. As they each lay a hand down, side by side, the circle of young hands mushed together forms a large fleshy launching pad.

Then, using leather gloves, she tips an eight-inch owl the shade of coppery leaves on her back, laying the bird right on their fingertips at the center of that launch pad. Be very still, she says. The owl lies on her back, huge black pupils staring straight up at a starry sky, feathered talons clutched into her chest. We hold our breath. The owl lies there for an impossible ten, fifteen seconds. Then suddenly she realizes she is free, sits up, rises straight in the air like a tiny helicopter, wings parting the sky over my students, and disappears into the frosty autumn night.

All but one of the young owl-seekers are students enrolled in “Birding to Change the World,” a class I teach at the University of Vermont. In this course I pair college students as birding mentors with children. Every Monday, students meet in a college class to learn about birds, education, and social justice. Every Wednesday, we drive five miles to a Burlington elementary school, where my students walk, learn, and play with their fourth- or fifth-grade “co-explorer” for three hours in a neighborhood wetland and woods. Each of my students is paired with the same child all semester. I walk just behind the boisterous human flock and am always deeply touched to see a child reaching for the hand of their college mentor, the pair walking the mile back to school, chattering away like finches.

On the second day of this program in 2016, a fourth-grader named Jean Baptiste found a bald eagle along Lake Champlain. The kids and college students stood in a huddle fifteen feet away and stared reverently. The eagle was perched high in a tree, peering out over the lake, but every few minutes it swiveled its huge head and stared at us, as the smallest kids ducked behind their college mentors.

On another memorable day, I was trailing behind the group on that same lakeshore path when the kids up ahead suddenly began pulling on the binocular straps around their mentors’ necks, trying frantically to wrench the binoculars away. I was mystified. The kids hated carrying the binoculars. There must be an incredible bird, I thought, and started running. When I finally caught up, every single kid was carefully focusing those binoculars on a glistening, hairy naked man emerging from the waters of Lake Champlain.

My students fall in love with the birds as much as the children. After years of teaching I can read the early warning signs of bird obsession—the inability to sit still, the head twitching when something feathered flies by the classroom window, and the emails like this one:

TRISH!!! I just heard birds outside and ran to get my binoculars!
Then something CRAZY happened!! On my porch I have
a window box and a chickadee swooped in and grabbed a
bug off the mint plant, right in front of me! AND THEN a
hummingbird swooped in to check out the flowers LITERALLY
3 FEET from my face!!! AND THEN!!! The hummingbird flew
to a tree and perched. THEN THE CHICKADEE CAME
AND CHASED THE HUMMINGBIRD FROM BRANCH
TO BRANCH ALL AROUND THE TREE!!!! WHY?!? I just
had to tell you, I got so excited!!!

And then there are the student “rescuers” with “bird emergencies” (I sometimes regret giving students my home number). One winter I got a call from a frantic freshman named Oliver who had found a blinded house finch still alive, deep in the snow on a campus athletic field.

“Oliver, sounds like house finch conjunctivitis. Grab the bird and put it in a container. I’ll call you back when I find a finch doctor.”

Thirty minutes later, Oliver the new finch ambulance driver meets Ellen, a member of the quiet bird-helper army that exists everywhere. Ellen takes the tiny patient home, starts him on a ten-day course of tetracycline, and a few hours later sends Oliver a video of that house finch with his eyes open, flying around his new cage.

*

In the last fifteen years, I’ve spent approximately 1,960 hours outside watching birds, filled thirty-three field notebooks with scribblings on their doings and dramas, helped raise baby chickadees, bluebirds, wrens, and swallows in tiny birdhouses, volunteered in a baby bird nursery at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, and taught hundreds of college students and children about them at two major universities. Scientists criticize anthropomorphizing—the application of human attributes to animals.

But during those 1,960 hours outside with birds, I’ve begun to turn anthropomorphizing on its head and think about which avian attributes, talents, and skills our species urgently needs. I’ve been particularly struck by the strategies birds use to fiercely defend their home territories. What if humans employed some of these same strategies to protect the places we love?

My favorite such strategy is called a murmuration, when silver-speckled black birds funnel across the sky by the hundreds, thousands, even millions. As if to the beat of a giant invisible baton, the black birds all tilt in the same direction, diving and pirouetting, arcing and falling in a massive choreography of beating wings.

The choreographer and performer is the European starling. Despised in the United States because it is not native, the starling is often called a “sky rat” because there are so many. And yet it’s their very numbers that make the aerial dance so spectacular.

Scientists are not exactly sure how the birds coordinate their movements. In a project called STARFLAG, a team of Italian theoretical physicists spent nearly eighteen years on the rooftop of the Palazzo Massimo—the Museum of Roman Art—in the center of Rome, photographing starlings at dusk. They discovered that when one black bird abruptly tilts its wings and changes course, seven neighboring birds follow suit, and then these seven birds each activate seven more, and so on, in a feathered law of seven to create that choreography. Researchers observed that that first bird often tilts its wings because a hawk is approaching, a predator and threat to the entire flock. The murmuration helps the flock escape.

When I read this study, I began to think about social change and what our species can learn from starlings. Could we change course like that, too? In other words, what if we were as smart as birds—or at least smart enough to learn from them?

*

Avians have probably been teaching our species for the estimated half a million years we’ve been on the planet. The earliest human art shows that they were among our very first teachers. We may have learned to build our own nests, weave, sing, and group together to drive away a predator all from our feathered friends.

And we are still learning from them. Avians are part of the inspiration for a discipline-spanning movement in engineering and sustainability science called biomimicry, biomimetics, and bioinspiration for sustainable design. For scientists in this movement, nature is their teacher. They believe the answers to some of our most urgent questions can be found in creatures ranging from microbes to whales—structures, systems, and survival mechanisms based on millions of years of evolution that are marvels of efficiency compared to the way we design things.

We may have learned to build our own nests, weave, sing, and group together to drive away a predator all from our feathered friends.

One of the most famous examples is how birds taught us to take to the skies (granted, while spewing poisons into the air, making a hellish racket, and lacking their grace, beauty, and agility). In the fifteenth century while he was studying birds, Leonardo da Vinci drew many designs for flying machines. Intrepid experimenters tried to fly his contraptions three centuries later (mostly crashing), but one helped the Wright Brothers make aviation history in 1903. Since Leonardo, aviation engineers have continued to study birds, basing improvements to planes on avian bones, which are hollow and feature an internal structure that makes them strong and lightweight. Future planes with an avian design would be not only stronger but also much more fuel efficient.

Birds are upending the worlds of engineering, architecture, aviation, medicine, transport, robot technology, and water conservation. One of Japan’s prettiest and most beloved birds, the common kingfisher—anything but common-looking, with a glittery turquoise back, an orange chest, and bright red legs—taught train engineers how to build a better speedy bullet train. The bird is not only gorgeous but can dive in and out of water almost silently, with hardly a splash. So engineers modeled the Shinkansen train on the kingfisher’s anatomy, giving the Shinkansen a long beak-shaped nose and creating a train that is 10 percent faster, uses 15 percent less energy, and, most important, does not make a huge sonic boom when it exits tunnels, a source of noise pollution and public complaints.

Woodpeckers are teaching scientists how to better protect space shuttles from space debris and football players’ heads from brain injury as they study the bird’s skull and beak structure. And emus and ostriches, who can run 45 miles per hour, have inspired scientists in Germany to create the BirdBot, a robot that runs 300 percent more efficiently on avian-inspired legs than a robot on human-based legs. Hummingbirds have inspired helicopter design. And sandgrouse in Africa are teaching water conservation experts how they gather water droplets in their feathers at watering holes, miles from their breeding grounds, and carry life-giving water to their waiting flightless babies. The structure of their feathers allows them to do this, just as those structures create the beautiful colors birds grace our daily lives with. Feathers and other structural miracles of nature such as the scales on butterfly wings and peacock spiders may even help our species shift to renewable energy. Scientists and engineers are currently increasing the ability of solar panels to absorb light by emulating these structures.

Though I greatly admire the work of these scientists, I was never smart enough or humble enough to think that a bird or any other nonhuman could teach me anything. I am an accidental birder. My students stare at me in disbelief when I tell them that until I was forty-five years old, I never cared about birds. “Birds?” That summed up my attitude. For most of my life I’d been a peace activist trying to change US foreign policy. Right out of college I moved to Nicaragua to join the Sandinista revolution (that didn’t work out so well if you’ve kept up on the brutal dictatorship of Daniel Ortega), and then I became an investigative human rights journalist.

For ten years in Central America I studied Homo sapiens and the terrible things we do to one another. I researched massacres committed by the United States-backed regime of Guatemalan general Efraín Ríos Montt. And I was deeply inspired by Central American human rights defenders who organized to change their countries. This is why when foreign biologists descended from the Global North to do research in jungle areas, I thought they were insensitive and just plain weird—well-fed, binoculared foreigners running around in jeeps counting birds and monkeys in countries where people were still trying to count their dead. I was never going to be one of those people.

After I left Central America, I got a job at a civil rights center in Montgomery, Alabama, as a hate crimes researcher. How to stop war, how to end economic injustice, how to fight racism and white supremacy—these global problems were the focus of my life and work. I never paid any attention to environmental issues. I simply did not see the connections. But then life took a sudden wild turn. Everything fell apart in a single day—a matter of hours. There was a life before that day and a life after. In that life after, I found the birds.

__________________________________

From Birding to Change the World: A Memoir by Trish O’Kane. Copyright © 2024 by Trish O’Kane. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.



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Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lamber is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes about arts, entertainment, lifestyle, and home news. Nicole has been a journalist for years and loves to write about what's going on in the world.

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