Find your bird, and go play
I never know where to look, or what to expect. But I feel magnetically pulled to birdsong… And I always give in.
What I do is not birding, which I’m told - by Kenn Kaufman in Kingbird Highway - is more the sport of looking for birds. A kind of “competitive meditation,” as Jonathan Rosen calls it, where the winning matters but only as much as it doesn’t.
It’s not bird-watching either, because I’m not just looking at birds going about their world in the wild, or trying to capture them for my Instagram grid.
It’s bird-playing. It’s embracing when a bird comes by as I go about my life, and then playing an imaginary game with it, that it seems to be playing too.
Of all the ways to be with birds, bird-playing is most immersive. Let me explain.
Bird-play, like all play, begins with an invitation to play… except from a bird.
Repetitive, yet melodic, occasionally teasing, sometimes even operatic, but always playful and full of cheer, as if the sun has risen for the first time ever… birds seem to call out to us in song all the time.
Last week, I found myself in a petrol-pump on the new Bangalore-Mysore national highway. I was there to use the restroom. Turns out the pump happened to be beside the washing area of the kitchen of the neighbouring South-Indian breakfast joint. All I could hear was a discordant orchestra of clanging steel plates, and pots and pans being hand-washed… Until I heard the penetrating tune of a bird I’d never heard before.
Abruptly, the beautiful chatty call of this bird commandeered my being. From really needing to take a wee till a few seconds ago, I was derailed. I was now trying to find my persistent caller. The White-browed Wagtail!
Teaching myself to hear birdsong, or rather, trace it out in the cacophony of our city lives and city ambitions was a process. It took a heightened attunement to sound, sight, space and time through all my barely there animal-senses.
First, I’d isolate the sound of the bird from among its competitor noises and follow it back to its source. Then I’d have to locate the spatial origins of the sound both in direction and distance. Then I’d expand my awareness visually to identify a rough point of origin of the song. All within a few seconds because birds can’t seem to just stick around and loll about on their couches like we can.
I find myself having to be, see, listen and move with full presence, emptied of myself and my mental chatter. I am drawn viscerally as I do this, with full attention in a full-bodied way, to a thing entirely outside of me. This special kind of internal silence and external attunement grounds me to the present like little else can. As I get better at doing this, I experience a new relationship with myself and a new relationship with the world.
Chasing down sound, space, and time clues in this treasure hunt is rewarded with the ultimate easter egg. The sighting of a bird going about its day. For a tiny moment, you inhabit the world of the bird. This expansion of attention to birds is irreversible as Jenny Odell says in How to Do Nothing.
Even the most evil social-media giants on the planet haven’t cracked harnessing attention to such a razor sharp focus and with this degree of a dopamine hit, the way bird-playing has.
With this “irreversible expansion of attention”, bird-play is mutual.
Bird-play is unlike going to a zoo or a sanctuary. It is witnessing a bird play its next move, after it watches us play ours. It is observing birds intentionally construct their lives in environments that we have created and claimed as ours. In these spaces, my intuition is that every move we make has a great and real impact on birds. It forces them to respond with intention. So bird-playing may often look like just getting the heck out of the way, because we kind of cheated and already played too many moves before they had a chance.
Two Common Tailorbirds showed up two summers in a row to build their nest on my 7th floor apartment balcony. When they first came in, I rushed to my balcony-window to figure out what all the racket was about. I watched them as they hopped around a potted Avocado bush. They were surveying the lay of the land for themselves, from underneath, above, and other odd angles through the branches.
But Raksha, my silly mutt with abandonment issues, always knew. She saw me peering in that direction and just knew another creature was the subject of my attention and momentary affections. She let her displeasure be known, uproariously. The tailorbirds were thrown into a tizzy by the blasts of endless barking and then were ejected out of the balcony into frenzied flight.
I love birds and I love that they can find peace in my balcony and I love Raksha and that I could give her a safe home. Yet her territorial instincts are the reason the birds had to do some serious inner-work on their fight or flight responses, while they contemplated nesting in my balcony.
I went on to shut the balcony doors and keep Raksha away, as this little bird family commenced nesting for the season. Eventually, the birds concluded the balcony was safe.
After the eggs hatched and chicks learned to fly, I observed something that made me chuckle. The birds had padded their nest with a bed of soft nylon string. These strings were drawn from hanging cloth planters that - I had earlier noticed - were mysteriously unravelling in another balcony in the apartment!
Sometimes, the only way for city-chaos to be transformed into little cocoons of calm for a bird might be if we can look at the world from its eyes.
In bird-play, we can only win if we all win. All of us lose if even one of us loses.
When I started playing this imaginary game with birds, I saw Rock Pigeons everywhere. In gardens, balconies, and car parks, outside my window, in my runs, hiding behind window ledges and roosting in chimney outlets. I found myself just glazing over them, almost as if they weren’t birds. Until one day it struck me that their abundance should be no reason for their erasure.
The pigeon is everywhere, all the time, without fail, but at peace for a reason. Rock Pigeons endured generations of humans trying to domesticate them, train them, use them, hunt them, eat them and then kick them out. But city buildings resembled the cliff rocks that were originally home. And city dwellers resembled monkeys in their eating habits, leaving behind piles of food-waste behind them. So they found ways to nest in city walls, eat human food, while pooping corrosive acidic poops full of disease-bacteria like E.coli.
I learned with awe that the Rock Pigeon is the OG Angry Bird. Rock Pigeons have found a way to thrive, despite the odds, by building their worlds in the middle of ours, forever transforming themselves into the kind of nuisance that forces human beings to stay at a distance and let them be. Rock Pigeons have basically won life.
Why bird-playing is underrated.
Life as I knew it, before I began to bird-play, felt a tad surreal and out of body. I was running on a hamster wheel, in a world of “I and it”. Everything was a project, it had to be done, we did it all ourselves, in glass boxes that housed imaginary things, held together by made-up stories, to generate a non-real thing to satisfy some yearning that is entirely within us: the satisfaction that we are moving forward, and making it in life.
I often wondered if this was all there was to living.
Attuning myself to birds was stumbling into a private kind of embodied living full of mutuality. Every move we made would be met by a move they made. Everything we did could have a real impact outside of us, even if just as butterfly effects. Our lives in birds’ ecosystems had to be built in partnership with birds going about their lives in our cities. A world of “I and Thou.”
The only way to win was if we all won together. Something about that is electrifying and humbling.
Feedback is the greatest love language. Thank you , and for all the love, time and labour you gave this one.
What I like most about this article are your self-observation about your own habits of attention and the suggestion that there is a way to use our attention to be with and relate to the world rather than just capture and use it. I am following a good batch of authors now and am having somewhat of an author-play experience, tuning in and listening to the unique voice/song of each author with the intention of delighting in each one's unique expression. I am very much appreciating your song as one of those voices in the word-woods.
As a hearing-impaired person, I really appreciated this. I can hear birds, I just can't understand what they're saying! LOL (Same with humans.)
I love to pace around my yard as different birds come and go. I'm more into watching, but I do like their singing and screeching!