Mama! What’s he saying?!?” My daughter asks. Wrinkling my face, I survey the yard. There is no one there.
I feel a small flutter in my stomach because I believe we are alone in our backyard.
“Who?” I ask.
“Him, that guy.” She stammers without looking up.
I listen again, the flutter in my stomach turning into a small knot. I stand up, walk to one side of the house and look down the driveway. Still no-one. I walk to the other side of the house and peer down between the fence and the house; no-one.
“Who are you hearing?” My voice low and gentle now. She stops pounding the stone against the acorn and as condescendingly as a 6 year old can, she looks up at me.
“That guy! Liisssten!” she implores. I listen.
“That guy!” she says yet again. I listen again. My scrunched forehead now showing obvious confusion.
“Do you hear that guy?!” This time she stops pounding the acorn and stands up, pointing with the stone in her hand, to the direction of the front yard:
“That bird!!” She reveals.
My ears stop straining, the knot in my gut unravels, thankful that she is not hearing imaginary voices I need to thoughtfully navigate!
“Oh, yeah, now I hear him,” I answer, exhaling loud and labored.
“So, what’s he saying?” She demands again.
This time, she watches me with cat like attention as I close my eyes and turn my ear in the direction she is pointing. I hear road noise, a distant leaf blower, an airplane, and a variety of other random noises before tuning into thecheep, cheep, cheep. Once I actually hear it, an entire educational career blasts itself like a river of thoughts into my head. The California Towhee I now hear is keeping a metronome like sharp chime. How had I not heard it before? Why is she so tuned in? What about the sound has clued her into the fact that it isalarming? How does this contribute to her development? Why does this even matter?
Hearing is passive, listening is active. A child’s neurological system requires a multi-sensory-motor, contextual diet of experience. The auditory system waits for internal and external signals to ingest and then categorize. An external signal can come from sound, scent, sight, touch, taste, body sense. From these external signals, internal senses are launched; which give us a baseline or homeostasis. In the case of sound, our ears hear a sound which is then directed to an intake highway. The sound enters the neurological system like a car entering a round-a-bout. The brain then files it into one of two categories: keep or throw away. If the brain determines the sound has importance, it places it in a category for further exploration (keep for later integration). Through further exploration, which requires repetition, it determines what the significance of the sound is, if it has meaning and function, and if it will be useful.
Processing the sounds one hears is a complicated matter. Hearing is only one aspect of processing sound. To make meaning of sound, listening must be employed and a moment of integration must be experienced for the body to have a coherent neurological expansion. Bird language is the tangible representation of just how complicated and layered a human auditory processing system is. The many voices of bird language are a physical representation of what a humans auditory processing system is capable of. It is the first language that our ancestors tuned into. Bird language, likely developed our auditory processing capabilities as one way to ensure our survival. In the book “What the Robin Knows (2012),” Jon Young tells us that birds give us all the information about the surrounding environment we could ever ask for.
“The types of birds seen or heard, their numbers and behaviors and vocalizations, will reveal the locations of running water or still water, dead trees, ripe fruit, a carcass, predators, fish runs, insect hatches, and so much more.” (Young, J., 2012. Pg. 173)
The development of our auditory processing system and its atunement to bird language was so successful, that as a species, we thrived to the tune of now almost eight billion people. Unfortunately we have been unconsciously competent at this skill of listening for far too long and we are now losing our ability to process sound for functional use. More and more children are having trouble paying attention in school because they literally can’t discriminate sounds or tune out background noise; both learned skills.
Scientists are finding that language develops as a cooperative event, not a passive experience. The same is true for all neurological development that, for millions of years, happened through direct sensory motor responses between person and landscape, and in concert with sound, sight, touch, smell, taste and movement. This response developed connections from the discovery of relationships with the forms, patterns and rythms of the natural world.
Birds have communities, who are like neighbors living in the same place for generations and generations. They understand the patterns, movement and forms of weather, seasons, other birds, mammals, and others. Birds are welcoming and unconditional in their ability to share this information with us. Wake for sunrise on a clear day and you will instantly understand the richness of bird language.
It has been said that birds were given the original instructions to lift the hearts and minds of the human population. They have been hearing and categorizing sight, sound and habit from the totality of our environment since the beginning of time. Why? Imagine this: Jon Young (2012) tells us that in almost every neighborhood, lives a community of song birds. Those song birds are acutely aware, every waking and sleeping moment, that there are numerous predators afoot. Over generations, the relatives of the songbirds living today needed to pay attention and eventually attune to every utterance and nuance made on the ground, in the trees and in the open sky. This continues to be true. To this day, every community of songbirds in a neighborhood goes to sleep at night with at least 2 less birds; essentially they still have a direct need to pay attention. If you live in California, those two birds are breakfast and dinner to the elusive coopers hawk. Other locales have a similar predator. This current pattern birds employ is an exact replica of how humans developed their current sensory-motor systems. The birds have continued to live with that connection, we have not.
Now think: Why would a child’s alert system be awakened by the sound of a Towhee keeping a steady high pitched chime in a back yard in the year 2007? The answer is as simple as it is complicated: Humans are wired to survive. Attention to, and engagement with, survival practices, taught our ancestors what to attend (listen and file) to and what to dismiss. What we paid attention to for millions of years, wired the the neurological systems we house in our bodies today. A modern human child has the same developmental drives as her distant cousin who lived 10,000 years ago. The bird language my daughter heard that day is literally wired into her “attention” systems. The systems that say “Pay attention, this has been important for hundreds of thousands of years and it allowed your ancestors to survive so that you can live and breathe today!”
What is the correct response to support her developmental drive when a child asks “What is he saying?”
That question is a quest to answer an ancient, and also modern, need to develop through active processes. Permission to answer that drive is essential. Development is stacked, meaning that we cannot put a roof on without first creating a solid foundation. Remember, hearing is passive, listening is active. Assume each sound one hears is a file card. In order to know if a sound is truly important, a young child must explore, question and categorize the file card of sound. This begins a process that created our highly specialized “processing” systems which told us what was happening in our surroundings, and without even looking up from pounding acorns with stones, a child can tap into this brilliance today. This is important in modern day because our neurological systems still require a dedication to “making sense” of the world. Our systems come primed and ready but must be engaged, employed and organized for a fluid and useful response to stimuli. So the correct response for optimal developmental potentials is to say something like “I don’t know, lets go find out!” The child needs a coherent picture so that the sound can be filed and organized internally. If the sound is not attached to sight or smell or given meaning, it becomes a random isolated experience that never makes neurological sense; and we are built to make sense of our world. In this case, we discovered that “he” was actually a pair of California Towhee’s expressing serious upset and agitation at a grey squirrel getting much too close to a nestling of babies. In the not so distant past, this information may have been very helpful to us. In the present, it can assist us in the development and organization of our neurological foundations. A well developed and integrated sensory system, frees one up for higher cognitive function.
Who knew that birds were the original engineers of our listening systems? Is it any wonder that time in nature, listening to the sounds of nature, has such a calming effect to all humans regardless of socio-economic status, race or geographical location?
The next time you walk outside your door, stop and listen, how many different bird sounds do you hear?
Kathleen is an Occupational Therapist and the founder of Foundations INature (foundationsinnature.com), Co-founder of the Central Coast Village Center: Outside Now! (outsidenow.org) local non-profit organization. She has worked with Jon Young and the 8 Shields Institute for the last 12 years, studied with Rosemary Gladstar (World renowned herbalist) and raised two beautiful young women. Kathleen has spent the last 25 years collecting the best and most valid scientific evidence to support the development of a meaningful, functional model of practice: Foundations In Nature Programming. This model supports people across the lifespan using ancient techniques for health and well being, because: Nature, it's not just what's outside, it’s what’s inside!
Young, J., (2012). What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World. N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Company.