Spring Music and Lightness of Being
The music of spring has begun! The grip of winter is weakening in the Northern Hemisphere, as the sun’s position increasingly warms the air. Just like water, air flows riverlike across the whole of the planet. The uneven heating of the Earth and differences in atmospheric pressure all cause wind, as the movement of air...in this case strong spring winds.
The generally quieter time of winter is giving way to dramatically increased bird song. The chirps, buzzing, trills and squawks of flocks of migrating birds visiting our feeders on their passage through, or those who have arrived home for the breeding season, are symphonic.
In fact, one American study indicates that the overall reduction in human noise over COVID has been replaced by natural sounds. Many reported getting up to bird song rather than traffic rumbling, connecting to the ancient celebration of the sun rise. A UK study reported, in Euronews, that birdsong is human soul-food and the COVID time has “reignited a love of nature”.
Once, when travelling in the Ecuadorian Amazon, we got up very early to hike many kilometers into a pristine area…then climb about 7 stories to a walkway high above the endless jungle to await the moment the birds wake and serenade the sun’s glorious first rays. This moment of magic with the dawn choral rise....then fall is unforgettable. Even Charles Darwin suggested that birds were singing out of sheer happiness!
Another study, from the U of California Polytechnic last year, found that natural sounds cause a marked increase in human sense of wellbeing. The more diversity of song you hear, the higher your sense of wellbeing. On this basis, they suggest it is time to protect our natural soundscapes!!
In Canada, many migrating birds are coming from Central and South America, generally several thousand miles, depending on bird and destination. It is miraculous that some of the tiniest songbirds can save enough energy in body fat for this intrepid journey, particularly over large expanses of water.
Some go through a molt into new feathers for the journey, like the new clothes we pack for a trip.
Migrating birds generally will not take to the air during steady north winds but wait until there is a moderate tailwind. Just as we watched the remarkable turkey vultures cruise up and down the coast waiting for the best north winds to take them south across the strait, so too, in spring they use the best south wind conditions for their journey north. Sometimes rain and poor weather grounds the migrating birds, who may temporarily end up in your yard in astonishing numbers, especially the Arctic birds we rarely see.
These migrations are normally almost invisible to us unless we seek out regular stopover locations to view them. In my plains home in Edmonton, Canada…I heard, and could barely see, the large, dense flocks of sandhill cranes going south for the winter as I harvested my garden, then going north in more scattered flocks for the summer when I was seeding my garden. Their distinctive throaty, staccato call ricocheted through the clouds.
A few weeks ago on the west coast, we had a large flock of pine siskins visiting the feeder. In their raucous social interchanges, like a gregarious family involved in simultaneous conversations, now including pairing conversations, they flew into all sorts of things (remember that twitterpation?) prompting us to move the feeder and put up even more window deterrence. Then the graceful and elegant varied thrushes came to visit for several weeks in addition to all the regulars, from chestnut backed chickadees to flickers.
The one bird that dominates by its color and beauty is the Stellar’s Jay. They are part of the crow family, captivating and highly intelligent. This family includes the raven, crow, blue jay, gray jay, pinyon and scrub-jays, the Clark’s nutcracker which we always see camping in mountainous areas, and the magpie, with the densest populations residing in Edmonton, of all places.
Nesting outside our
bedroom window on their giant, messy twig nest, they screeched and squawked every morning at the crack of dawn. They can be very intimidating…a large magpie landed on our daughter’s roof and leaned between it’s legs to stare at our 2-year-old granddaughter, scaring her by the directness of the interchange.
The term “bird brain” definitely does not apply to the crow family…who have been determined to have the mental ability of primates and dolphins. In comparison to other birds, they have the largest relative brain size. Marzluff and Angell in Gifts of the Crow and Candace Savage in Bird Brains, detail how large forebrains enable crows and ravens to solve problems through experimentation and development of tools, showing more innovation than a toddler or dog.
In the past, science has considered birds, as well as all animals, to be “instinctual automatons” or moving machines. Now, however, new research is demonstrating how these birds observe, plan, intuit solutions, deceive other birds or people, read intentions then exploit or scold people, and adapt to human habitats as scavengers, thereby co-evolving with us. I have heard of blue jays tapping at the window or ringing the doorbell when a feeder is empty. They have an uncanny ability to imitate human and other voices, almost as well as a parrot.
One study found that nutcrackers and jays can find tens of thousands of food stash locations, better than graduate students. The structure of their brains means that in some ways, they think like we do — in making associations, solving problems, inventing, remembering, and weighing consequences. They are social and adaptable animals, like us, with a higher level of consciousness than many other birds and animals.
In the Pacific Northwest, we have very large raven. There are many Indigenous legends about ravens here, from raven stealing the light (sun) and putting it in the sky, raven freeing the moon and placing it in the sky, and raven going berrypicking…all about gluttony at the community’s expense, leading to a community’s distrust. In these stories, Raven is charismatic and clever by using her wits, but sometimes her intelligence backfires. Raven is like the Coyote of the Plains Cree, the trickster who illustrates the dual capacity of humans for good and bad, and the freedom to choose which part of their character they will develop.
Ravens and crows have always fascinated. I love talking to ravens…one time croaking back and forth all the way down a mountainside hike. Another time, sitting on our deck in Nova Scotia, I could hear a crow family having what seemed like a family conference. You could almost make out the discussion. Together, they regularly chase eagles away en masse from their nests or food sources.
Yet, I once saw a crow kill and eat a robin fledgling to the mother’s utter distress and powerlessness. Crows can raise uncertainty…leaving my university office at nightfall in the early winter, crows gathered in the large leafless tree skeletons across the street, before they moved to their roosts. Hundreds of crows black against the inky night sky raises one’s alarm bells, as Edgar Allan Poe captured. Crows migrate, while ravens do not, and one November, in broad daylight the sky directly above us turned black with thousands of crows streaming south in an amazing black river.
Birds have much to teach us…as they are associated with air and the direction of east. They teach about having a higher vision of what is going on in our world, rather than the myopia of our daily concerns. They teach us nobility, that cuts through rationalizations and cover stories, to take full responsibility for ourselves and our actions. They teach us to consider seven generations after us, the big picture of the world we are leaving behind us.
Air is associated with the powers of the mind, but this must be balanced with creative and intuitive powers. It is now known we have three brains…not just the one in our head, but also a brain centre in our gut which is the locale of our intuition. While our rational minds can get caught up in never-ending, sometimes oppressive loops, and even deceive ourselves, our intuition can find the way through to the other side. To be balanced, we need to listen to all of our inner sources of intelligence and wisdom.
The bird’s body is also designed for lightness, with hollow bones. We too can live more lightly, not only materially but emotionally. Learning to work with our breath, we can take in more oxygen which cleanses and re-energizes our bodies and minds, as we exhale old, stale energy completely. The winds of spring help us take these deep breaths as a clearing exercise. We can breath out negative qualities or emotions and breath in vitality. Breath work has been central to meditation practices for centuries, enabling entry to other levels of consciousness.
As James Nestor says in his book Breath, Western humans have lost the ancient art of breathing properly, which keeps us in stress states or chronic disease. Quality breathing, or what he calls, restorative breathing, can balance our emotions, nourish our brains and blood, as well as enhance our immune response. We have nasal cycles, as our nostrils “open and close like flowers throughout the day and night.” Further, our right nostril is a gas pedal to create a state of alertness and readiness. The left nostril is the brake which reduces anxiety, lowers blood pressure and helps with creative thought. Just like ecosystems, our body systems strive to reach a state of dynamic balance for optimal health.
Two Suggested Practices
This month, I encourage you to try alternate nostril breathing as an exercise in “purification”, from yoga.
Close your left nostril with your index finger and softly suck in air through your right nostril, pause for 5 seconds, then exhale out. Do at least a dozen times to heat and speed up your digestion, such as before meals. To balance it out, immediately, or before bed, close your right nostril with your index finger and softly suck in air through your left nostril, pause for 5 seconds, then exhale out, again a dozen times. Or you may do both in one sitting for an immediate sense of clarity and relaxation.
Another practice for this March/April moon, is to do what you can to prevent birds from hitting windows. It is estimated that bird window collisions kill over a billion birds in North America alone. Family homes are responsible for 50% of the collisions, and highrises for many more. Birds are not able to process the concept of glass windows, especially at the ground floor, so it remains invisible to them. If you have noticed particularly bad windows for collisions, you can take the BirdSafe self assessment tool then explore the products available. Decals do not work nearly as well as Zen window curtains, window screens, or safety films called “feather friendly” or “collidescape”. Do the windows that are most dangerous to birds…which is better than nothing at all. It is deeply sorrowful to watch a beautiful feathered one die…and deprive the world of quintessentially beautiful spring music.