The Language of Birds

am robin drawing s

There are robins.  Everywhere.  When I wake, early with the sun, I hear them over the street sounds of Broadway.  When I walk along the path of Riverside Park they stop in front of me, deliberately, waiting to look me in the eye before I’m allowed to continue on my way.  Even as I pass dozens all over the grasses on either side of the path, I hear others singing in the surrounding trees.

My daughter suspects a nest in a nearby window to her apartment—she sends a text with a recording—“day and night,” she says.

painted starling s

As she sits by her window working from home, she tells me she sees starlings on the window ledge across the street—“they leap off and let themselves fall a few feet before opening their wings”—we both wonder if this is normal.

I hear a whistle and turn to look—two starlings take off right in front of me and fly towards the river.  I see a fledgling by the park wall.  The only thing it moves as I approach cautiously is its head—with the bright yellow beak against the grey feathers, it too must be a starling—can it fly?—where are its parents?  I snap a photo and walk on.  When I pass the same spot, returning home, it is gone.

fledgling s

In the mornings the gulls swoop in groups, weaving patterns around the piece of moon that still sits ghostly in the blueing sky.  They cry like cats suspended in mid-air, echoing off the buildings into my window.

mockingbird open wings s

A mockingbird moves just ahead of me as I cross the bridge to the park.  It never stops singing, going through its repertoire while waiting for me to almost catch up as it hurries ahead again.  Another day, I am walking uptown instead of down, and a mockingbird lands on the iron fence just ahead of me.  It too is deliberate in meeting my gaze, making sure I stop, nod my head in greeting.  Further on a catbird does exactly the same thing.  A cardinal swoops down into the grass by a nearby tree, a flash of red that pauses with me before it returns to the top of the tree.  I hear more cardinals, blue jays and flickers. Sparrows chatter and cover the grass and path, the bushes and trees; pigeons share the stone walkway, and once, also, a morning dove.  Sometimes the pigeons visit my window ledge.

house sparrow drawing 1s

And crow.  Crow has been following me around for years.  Now he teases me, calling, in front, behind, from nowhere and everywhere.  Every once in awhile I am the winner in this game of hide and seek, but I know it’s only because he wants me to see him, to acknowledge his appearance as well as his voice.  A murder of crows appears ahead of me on one of my earliest walks, when I was still fearful of going out at all.

crow 2s

I’ve always walked, never having owned a car.  But it was with a purpose, to get from one placed to another.  Now I just walk.  And I have always been aware of birds while walking. But since the lockdown they seem to be multiplying by the day, boldly communicating—something, what?

neocolor cardinal s

Many of the world’s cultures see birds as mediators, messengers between the human and the divine.  I know what crow is telling me.  He knows I need reminding of it, too:  pay attention.  Get out of that inner conversation you keep having with yourself and look around, listen, be where you are.  Robins are symbols everywhere of new beginnings, transformation, tenacity, hope.  Birds show us the power of community, the power of voices, the symbiotic relationship between the earth and all living creatures.

These are the days of Covid-19 in the city of New York.  Humans are hiding; birds are out in force.

seagull 3s

In fairy tales, those who understand the language of birds have magical powers.

collapse expand
places of between

material spiritual
no time exists

open to
carry us home

corvus s

I’ve been doing Draw-a-Bird Day on the 8th of the month for a few years now at MethodTwoMadness, accumulating most of these illustrations in the process.

For the earthweal challenge Vast Particulars.

37 thoughts on “The Language of Birds

  1. Oh, my! I loved this. This could have been me on my walk (though not in the city). I’ve been more aware of birds, too, as I walk–yes, many crows when this began and tons of robins. I’ve been seeing crow parents and babies flying together, or perhaps I’m seeing starlings? Or both? The other day, I was walking down the middle of a street hearing dueling mockingbird concerts. It was like a stereo. Wondrous.

    “Wings open to carry us home”. That’s all we can hope for. Beautiful drawings, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So lovely … in recent months I’ve taken to sitting outside early and late with a demanding stray cat who, after years of not coming within 10 feet of me, now demands to be held. And so I sit with early morning and night. In the past few weeks the birds have become so much more audible — maybe I’m just listening differently, but the change in tenor is wide and makes me wonder if suburban life has been shutting out the animal world increasingly. Also, with so many bugs dying off, so too the birds … Maybe it’s just that the bugs are back. Anyway, lovely observations and the pics are great. Did you paint the gull? Your observations from New York City are great to have at earthweal, it’s an important part of the global report. Thanks again – Brendan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a wonderful image that is, sitting outside with a cat on your lap listening to birds. It may be that we are just paying more attention–but I think they are also filling in the spaces we’ve left. I hope we can continue to leave them more room.

      All the artwork is mine.

      Thanks for your inspiration–all the questions you are raising are important as we try to clarify where we are going (if our leaders allow us to…) So much is uncertain.


  3. I love this poem full of birds, as I love the small creatures so dearly. Your paintings are very lovely too. So good to hear from New York, which is emerging from a very hard time. I hve watched the news with concern for its residents. Your state governor is very admirable. I wish he’d run for President.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Sherry. City people are ambivalent about Cuomo, as he has a contentious relationship as governor with our needs. But even we have to admit he is a sane voice in the wilderness of untruths. Our mayor is a waste of time, so it’s needed.
      I love birds, always. And to see so many of them now gives hope.


  4. I think I hear a catch in your voice. All will be well. Stay safe with the birds. I’ve marvelled at how quickly nature stepped right up into the spaces left where humans were. I so wish we could accommodate animal and plant life better on our way forward.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Claudia. I wonder if there are bluebirds here. There must be, maybe not in Riverside Park though. I often hear bird calls I don’t recognize, but then I always wonder if it’s a mockingbird or a starling. But they had to have heard it somewhere to imitate it…


      1. I would think not many for the bluebirds, they are very shy, and like to be living in open meadows and so on. This year I have seen quite a few and other years, none, I am wondering why. Maybe I am just paying more attention.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. So much engagement with the birds! I enjoyed that. I am in a rural area so I’m not sure that the birds around here are experiencing the lockdown but their presence feels even more important to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Janice. I think maybe the absence of people gives the birds here a chance to be noticed–and I know I’m paying more attention. But I’ve never had birds seem to meet my gaze in such a blatant way. There’s definitely a different feeling outside now.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I had the feeling of a direct gaze from a blue jay the other day. I am sure the birds are noticing differences these days … probably even more in the cities where the birds live very close to humans.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Wonderfull! Have you read Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell.” The Raven King, a powerful magician write a major treatise on the Language of Birds. Your piece evoked this wonderful feel for me. we have just put up a bird feeder in our back yard, we have seen one bird and two squirrels so for. and the crow – so gorgeous! quiet, powerful!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Lona. I have not read that book, though I have it packed away somewhere–my daughter recommended it. Most of my books are in storage until I figure out a permanent housing arrangement.
      Yes squirrels love bird feeders too!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow, Kerfe, I love this piece, and the bird illustrations are gorgeous. I love the way you start with robins everywhere, we have them too, and go on to present such a wide range of birds. I’m listening to birdsong as I write this, they are enjoying the sun out there! But there are sadly no mocking birds or cardinals over here in England. I can see why many cultures see birds as ‘mediators, messengers between the human and the divine’. I have regular birds that talk to me – magical powers… and wings that open to carry us home. I have read Lona’s book suggestion, Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell, which was also made into a TV series over here in the UK. Wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kim. I like the fact that many birds are local. They are adapted to their environments so it makes sense. And I think they are all magical!
      I think I have that book packed away somewhere, but I haven’t read it yet. I know my older daughter liked it a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The birds are very active here too. I like the way you look to tem as messengers telling us to get out of our heads and to become more aware of nature. Your bird paintings are lOKvely – so full of life and personality.

    Liked by 1 person

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