I am trying to learn the names of birds. What we cannot name is often invisible to us. General names (bird, fish, mammal, tree) have their uses (cataloguing, sorting) but enable only a low type of visibility, a generalised blur attentive to the similarities between things rather than differences. “Without a name made in our mouths,” writes Tim Dee, “an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.” To know not bird but song thrush, blackbird, kōkako, bellbird, and tomtit is to know and be alive to the world more richly. “Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer observes in her book Gathering Moss.
To help me learn my birds, I’m using Lynette Moon’s Know Your New Zealand Birds. “This book,” Moon writes in the Introduction, “aims to help readers with an interest in birds to feel confident in identifying them.” It’s certainly been helpful. Often, I’ve come home from a walk having seen a new bird, muttering a litany of details, a prayer against forgetting—yellow body, size of a child’s fist, brown speckled wings; yellow body, size of a child’s fist, brown speckled wings; yellow body, size of a child’s fist, brown speckled wings—then grabbed Know Your New Zealand Birds and rifled through, looking for the bird that matches the description—in this case, the yellowhammer. The guide has a write up on each bird that includes its prevalence (common, in the case of the yellowhammer, though I swear I’ve never noticed this bird before), scientific name (Emberiza citronella), and whether its endemic (from here and nowhere else), native (self-introduced), or introduced (by humans). The yellowhammer is an immigrant, introduced from Europe in the 1860s, along with the song thrush, blackbird, and starling, by settlers homesick for the bird song of their native Britain. Moon also includes any information that might help the reader avoid common identification errors. She warns that female yellowhammers “may also be confused with female cirl buntings.” Look out for “chestnut rumps,” she advises—which I intend to do.
My favourite section is titled “Bird Topography,” which lists all the parts of a bird ornithologists use to describe them: crown, ear covets, nape, mantle, scapulars, secondaries, tertials, rump (chestnut or otherwise), uppertail coverts, primaries, undertail coverts, and so on. It’s the use of the word “topography” that I like—birds as a landscape or new continent to explore.
My copy of Know Your New Zealand Birds is second-hand. According to the sticker on the inside cover, it once belonged to a boy named Reuven who won it at “Avondale College Senior Prize-Giving in 2012 for 2nd in Psychology.” It is a crisp copy, and I suspect Reuven spent little time thumbing through it becoming confident identifying his birds. Reuven, I’m speculating, mixes up his female yellowhammers and cirl buntings all the time. Still, I like the impulse to connect birdwatching with psychology. A lazy joke here would be to mention “twitchers” and be done with it. But I think a deeper instinct is at work. Paying attention to birds is good for us, has possibilities for help and healing that go beyond simple delight to deeper realties of the human way in the world—realities many of us are in danger of forgetting.
Once, out my office window, I saw two sparrows fighting, mobbing each other in the air in a cataclysm of thrashing wings. It was late afternoon, and a strong wind gusted under a grey sky, flattening the long grass in patches and causing the gum trees to sway and hiss. I had been struggling to read in the dull light. I heard them first—a racket of chirping and beating wings. They tussled, then fell. (God saw it!—Matthew 10:24). For a moment, on the ground, one sparrow held the other by the neck with its beak. The prone sparrow’s head flopped to one side, and I thought, “It’s dead!” I could see the bare, dimpled skin beneath its neck feathers, pale as a cockle shell. It happened so fast I was in shock. Was I witness to sparrow murder, murder most fowl? But the dead bird flung itself back into the air, a diminutive phoenix without the fireworks. Nature has its dark side. Sparrows can be thugs. The circling falcon is hunting.
To pay attention is to open oneself to the wild ways of this world. But it is also to recognise that much of nature’s darkness is of our own making. Consider this: farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet. Just 30% of all living birds are wild. When I first heard this figure, I confess it near knocked me over. It’s obscene. Grotesque. An image seized me: I saw an army of giant chickens bloated, outsized, de-feathered, sickly, yellowed, sagging with steroids and forced feeding, marching across the face of the earth, scratching and pecking, scorching the ground to naked, dry dust. It struck me as an apocalyptic image. “I looked, and behold a pale chicken, and the name that sat on him was Convenience, and Hell followed with him.” It’s not that hard to think of it as some kind of judgement. We’ve traded tūī for Tegal Tenders, the greater bird of paradise for the (considerably lesser) KFC 3-Piece Quarter Pack. It’s difficult to feel we’ve made a wise trade. We replaced something wild for something we control. And it gets worse each year. Forty percent of all bird species globally are in decline. One in eight face extinction. All by our hands. I know it’s complicated. There are nine billion mouths to feed on this groaning planet. And yet, what do we lose when we allow the human world to consume the wild?
We lose ourselves.
One of the great lived falsehoods of our time is to think of “nature” as something outside of ourselves. Indoors, in our cities and suburbs, encased in concrete and tile, steel, and plastic, we have cut ourselves off from the natural world; we’ve broken, in the words of Thomas Berry, the “great conversation” with the other-than-human world. In doing so, we have caused damage in ways we are still struggling to comprehend—damage to the earth but also to ourselves. I recently came across the term “species loneliness.” In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes it as “a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship.” Richard Louv names “the gnawing fear that we are alone in the universe, with a desperate hunger for connection with other life.” Species loneliness. A desperate hunger for connection. Surely this is one of the wounds of our age? We feel our distance from nature as a loss because deep down we know it was not what we were made for.
In Genesis 1, our first ancestors joined a cosmos already rich with life, teeming with animals and creatures of every kind. Adam and Eve took the stage in an already unfolding drama, members of a wide and varied cast. The Christian tradition names these creatures kin, children with us of the same creator God, dwellers with us in a common home. “My little sisters,” Francis of Assisi called the gathered birds to whom he preached a sermon in 1220AD. Our task in life may be different from that of other creatures. “I can cherish the fragile beauty of the first trillium against the dark moss,” writes Erazim Kohák in The Embers and the Stars, “and I can mourn its passing. I can know the truth of nature and serve its good, as a faithful steward. I can be still before the mystery of the holy.” But each creature has its task, same as me, and, together, we form an interdependent whole, a great chorus of being declaring God’s praise. Separated from nature we cannot know the full meaning, good, and health of our lives—we are diminished. We need a way back. Perhaps birds may be a way back. They have been for me.
High in the branches of the giant pōhutukawa behind my house roosts a family of white-faced heron. In the evening, as the sun dips into the Manukau Harbour, they like to flutter and croak and squawk as they settle themselves. The croak of a white-faced heron has a prehistoric tone to it, a phlegm-throated mewling quality, as if a family of pterodactyl was living overhead, as if over my house was a lost pocket of deep time. In the pōhutukawa, flapping their wings, voicing their inelegant goodnights, the white-faced heron is an ungainly bird, but I have seen them on the gun-steel flats of the harbour at low tide early in the morning, hunting with precise steps and careful patience.
What are these birds to me, and I to them? Where does the thread of their lives lead? The great American naturalist John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” I pull the thread of this white-faced heron at rest on the limb above my garden and find it hitched to everything else—to the air through which it flies, to the tidal flats on which it hunts, to the fish on which it feeds, to the rough-barked pōhutukawa in which it nests, to the rich, volcanic earth from which the pōhutukawa draws strength, to the insects that burrow between its roots, to the rock to which it clings, to the mountain from which the rock came. Attention to the heron opens the world to me, makes me alive in new ways to its wonder, delight, strangeness, and beauty, and to the goodness, wisdom, and power of God displayed in it. With Michelle Nijhuis, I become aware that “my human household is part of an ecosystem—one populated with, and supported by, a variety of species living in relationship with one another.” I feel with new depth and texture that what is good for the earth is good for me, and that I share a common home with a great community of creatures whom I am called to know, love, and serve. I discover that only in doing so may I find the fullness and health of my life. Birds, then, are not the thread, but this sleek heron is a needle, threading my life back into the richly woven fabric of the natural world, the common home I share with all God’s creatures.