Listening to birds: 5 Invitations from David G Haskell

A couple of days ago, I noticed the silence. 

It was at the start of a big snowstorm and the landscape became quiet. The usual hum of human activity disappeared as the people retreated to their homes.  

We have a couple of feeders placed near the house. They are in just the right spot so I can see them from my writing chair.  The winter visitors are usually chickadees, sparrows, finches, blue jays, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and a few wild turkeys. But at this time, none of them were here.  It seemed that they had retreated home also.

The silence, and lack of bird song, made me think of an article that I had recently read by David G. Haskell about the voices of birds.  His argument was that when we notice the voice of birds, we are opening ourselves up to a profound connection with the natural world that is rooted in our ancestral knowledge.  

Haskell explains that to listen to the birds means that we approach the natural world with curiosity and wonder.  When we open our minds to the voice of birds, we can start to notice the language of the Earth that surrounds us. Haskell tells us,

“Our ancestors were ecological polylinguists. To listen was to learn about food, danger, opportunity, and the subtle nuances of ecological time and space, the mastery of which allows all creatures to thrive. To listen was to live and to find meaning. Disconnection and inattention invited death. And thus, natural selection placed the capacity to hear and understand beyond-human languages at the core of our human nature. So when we walk outside today and open our ears to the sounds of a sparrow, we reclaim what is ours by birth. We connect to meanings that emerge from the deep time of our membership in life’s community.”(1)

Birds in Flight: Photo by Fahad AlAni on Pexels.com
Photo Credit: Fahad AlAni

In order to start becoming more familiar with bird voices, Haskell  invites us to join him in five listening invitations.  These invitations are: sonic diversity, rhythms and change, physicality, names, and sharing.(2) 

Invitation of Sonic Diversity

The invitation of sonic diversity is an invitation to get outside and listen.  Notice the cadences of the bird song.  Notice the pitch of the voices you hear and see if you can notice any subtle differences between the birds.  Don’t worry about their names at this point.  Just notice and appreciate the sounds.

Invitation of Rhythms and Change

In this invitation, Harris is asking us to see if we can hear the difference between morning and evening song?  If we continue to listen, can we notice the difference in the birds as the weeks and the months pass?  How about when the weather changes?  Approach this invitation with curiosity and see what happens.

Invitation of Physicality

The invitation of physicality is to become aware of the difference in bird voice depending on location.  Take a walk through a local park and listen for the changes.  Listen to the birds in the city, in the suburbs, or in the country.  What do you notice there?  See if you can make connections between the environment and the sounds of the birds.

Invitation of Names

Sometimes it can be helpful to know the names of your neighbors.  When thinking about our avian friends, knowing their names helps us build a narrative about behaviors.  Knowing their names allows us to draw links between songs.  It also helps us communicate our experience with others 

Invitation of Sharing

This final invitation is about building a community.  Let people know what you heard. Share your observations.  See if others have noticed the sound of the geese as they migrate, or the cat bird that lives outside the office.  By sharing what you notice, you will be building a community that is more aware of the voices that accompany us everyday.  

Sparrow on Branch Photo Credit: Felipe Gaioski on Pexels.com
Photo Credit: Felipe Gaioski

These invitations are not only the steps we can take to reconnect with the birds, they are also steps that we can take to reconnect to the world.  Listening to birds asks us to tune into our senses.  Listening to their voices asks us to notice how the wind, rain, and sun influence the robin’s songs or the behavior of the eagle.  Listening opens us up to becoming more aligned with nature. 

It is interesting for me to think about how the lack of bird song is what really brought me back to this article by Haskell. Perhaps it is just a reminder that we sometimes don’t know what we have until its gone.

Luckily for me, the missing bird voices were only temporary. When the storm finally passed, I went outside and was greeted by the sparrows and chickadees. I even heard a couple of blue jays in the trees who, I can only assume, were carrying on about the fact that the feeder was empty.

Let’s answer the birds’ invitation, stepping outside to give them the simple gift of our attention. Listen. Wonder. Belong.

David G Haskell

About David G Haskell:

David George Haskell is biologist, professor, and author of three books: The Forest Unseen, The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, and Sounds Wild and Broken, which is due to be released in March 2022.  E. O. Wilson once wrote that Haskell wrote “a new genre of nature writing, located between science and poetry.”  

The articles referenced above were both published with Emergence Magazine.  

  1. The Voices of Birds and the Language of Belonging
  2. Listening to the Language of Birds

You can learn more about David Haskell at his website.

Cedar WaxwingPhoto by David Dibert on Pexels.com
Photo by David Dibert on Pexels.com

Looking for something else to read? Naturalist Weekly also has several curated book lists including one for nature lovers, one about birds, and books featured on our blog

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30 thoughts on “Listening to birds: 5 Invitations from David G Haskell

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    1. Hi Adele, So glad that you enjoyed this. I am not so good a knowing who’s song belong to who. But I enjoy noticing and listening. I hope you are doing well. Talk soon,

      1. Mark loved this post! I am a bird lover and feeding, watching and listening to them one of the greatest joys of my life.
        From morning, we have sparrows, sunbirds, bulbuls, seven sisters, babblers, pigeons, parrots and barbets visiting our garden bird feeders and bird baths. It’s a delight to sit and just see and hear them…Your article has given me more insight. Thanks a ton!

      2. Hi Neena, Thanks so much for commenting and sharing about your neighborhood birds. It must be pretty amazing to have parrots in your yard. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks again!

  1. Thanks for sharing Haskell’s message of “Listen, wonder, belong.” I’ve long been fascinated by a similar interest and, in fact, it’s likely that our earliest poems & songs found inspiration in the vocalization of birds & other statements from the world of nature.

    1. Hmm, that sounds like an interesting research topic. You may be on to something there with enough potential content to last for years! Glad you enjoy the article. Haskell’s new book about Wild Sounds might be a good place to start.

  2. What a great article, Mark. This reminds me of another anecdote from growing up on the farm. As a kid, before my hearing loss began, I was fascinated with farm sounds, particularly chipmunks and birds, and especially the evening mourning doves. They had such a solemn cry, and I learned to mimic it to perfection by blowing into my cupped hands. I’d go out in the evenings and listen, then call to them, and they’d call back. It was so interesting. I mean, I’m sure they knew I wasn’t a bird, but it was the interaction with these wild creatures that was so fascinating. Perhaps they were simply humoring my attempts to communicate with them, I don’t know. But I remember those moments well. I can’t hear bird song anymore due to my deafness. I really miss it. It’s beautiful and deeply meaningful, just as Haskell describes. 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, What a great memory of speaking to the doves! I sometimes wonder what they are thinking when I whistle back to a singing bird. My pitch isn’t that good so I am sure that don’t think I am a bird. I hope all is well. Talk soon,

  3. So beautiful article to read , the birds photos so lovely 🌷🙏👍🏻 Birds singing so nice to hear ,
    my place also can hear 😊👌Quill birds singing marvellous sound !! Happy Sunday 🌷🙏

      1. Thank you for this lovely comment message 🙏🌷🌝 quill bird sing koo…Koo…
        Your country the bird don’t have? It looks crow like black, but small .Every day
        We can hear the sound, then owl’s sound can hear, and Mina birds sounds.
        Have a nice Monday 🌷🙏🌷

      2. Hi Thattamma, I did a quick search and I couldn’t find a quill bird. We do have crows and ravens, both are black birds. Then there are quail. They are a smallish ground bird.

  4. When it is too muddy or icy to walk the woodland trails, birdsong is one of my delights when I can only walk the local streets. I have no ability to tell what bird is singing, other than the hawks loud cry, but I am grateful for the songs of my anonymous feathered companions.

    1. Hi Pam, I am glad you were able to find some connections to this post. I really enjoyed Braiding Sweetgrass. There is so much wisdom in that book. Thanks for adding to the conversation. Talk soon,

  5. When I lived in a tent, I had a mockingbird friend who would visit me each morning. This visit made me happy, which made me laugh ~ so the mockingbird learned to laugh also 🤗

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