Birdsong | Guest Column

By Kimberly Mayer.

I am on a bird walk. Comfortable shoes and binoculars are all that’s required, and I carry in my pocket a small notebook and pen. As our guide, Tyler Davis, says, “There’s just so much happening up there.” There’s a lot happening down here too, as participants in his bird walk in the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park seem to double, triple, and quadruple each month this summer. We stand in a circle and it’s easy to feel dizzy as swallows perform in flight around us.

We learn there are six species of swallows on San Juan Island, five in the Sculpture Park and one out by the ferry landing. Our guide knows all the birds, their appetites, and who’s returning every week.

We learn that robins move around, that winter robins and summer robins may not be the same. There are 11 or 12 species of gull on the island in the wintertime, and bluebirds are being reintroduced. That quail live in brambles to protect themselves from foxes. Ducks nest in trees. Cowbirds historically follow cows and the buffalo out west. That bird bones are honeycombed to keep them light in flight, and that birds migrate by using celestial cues and following the stars.

We walk on.

Like a conductor Tyler hears everything around him, sometimes cupping his ears to hear even better. “So much of birding is by ear,” he states.

The busiest time of day for song is sunrise, but before sunrise, there’s also what birders call a dawn chorus. Some birds sing when seated, some only in flight. The goldfinch cries, “potato chip.” The white crown sparrow, “me me pretty me.” Tyler’s favorite is the flute-like sound of a Swainson’s thrush, which he describes as “a summertime song, ethereal.”

“Like a spiral staircase,” he adds, twirling an index finger in the air.

Spotting and listening to birds not only enhances our time outdoors but paying attention to birds may be beneficial to our well-being. “Everyday encounters with the bird kind are associated with better mental health,” writes Richard Sima in “Why Birds and their Songs are Good for our Mental Health” Washington Post, May 18. Known as attention restoration theory, “natural stimuli, such as birdsong,” he explains, “may allow us to engage in soft fascination which holds our attention but also allows it to replenish.”

“The special thing about birdsong,” writes Emil Stobbe, an environmental neuroscience grad student at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, “is that even if people live in very urban environments and do not have a lot of contact with nature, they link the songs of birds to vital and intact natural environments.”

We continue walking. I’m thinking we are learning to listen with our eyes as well as our ears. Twenty acres of naturalized gardens, fields, meadows, a pond, woods, and shoreline. The San Juan Islands Sculpture Park is indeed a wildlife sanctuary. Numerous birds live and alight here, and according to park president David Jenkins, “Turns out birds love art.”

We are all in a reciprocal relationship. Protecting and preserving natural environments has everything to do with sustaining bird life, and in turn, our own mental well-being. The more in tune with birds we are, the more in tune with ourselves.