In our last post, Sensei Roemke told the story of his first lesson in Bird Language when he went on a hike with a local tracking expert, and how that helped him as a practitioner of the art of ninjutsu.
Spoiler alert...the tracker was a man named Jon Young.
To take a deeper dive into the art of bird language, we recently connected with Jon, a renowned author, tracker, naturalist, and mentor. Jon is a guiding force in bringing the practice of deep nature connection to the planet and is a pioneering voice in teaching the ancient art of bird language through his workshops and book, What the Robin Knows.
We sat down with Jon recently to pick his bird brain on the art of understanding what the birds are telling us and how this awareness can benefit a student of ninjutsu.
Pathways: Jon, can you describe bird language?
JY: Birds talk to each other. We can learn to understand them, and it's fun. And it's not just birds. It’s birds and other animals communicating with each other’s sounds, motions, and body language. Most animals, including birds, in the natural world cooperate in this shared communication. The exception today are modern human beings who have forgotten this important network. Wildlife all pay attention to each other because it gives all those involved in the conversation many more eyes and ears. This keeps everyone safe.
Pathways: Can you give us an example of bird language?
JY: An example of bird language happened here on the evening of March 16. As the sun was going down. There were some deer feeding in the yard peacefully. There were three adult male deer and two yearling males. The yearlings were being yearlings. They were playing with each other. They were going off a little bit too far from from their uncles who would coax them back to the herd. The five bucks were feeding peacefully out in the meadow. At one point, a young male wandered off into the forest, on the east side of the field. Then on the west side of the field, where there is a forest edge, something changed. Out of that forest edge came the alarm call of the spotted towhee slowly moving from south to north following something unseen on the ground.
The spotted towhee alarm caught the attention of the adult male deer, all three of whom raised their ears very high, piquing their interest and stared with total focus in the direction of the alarming towhee. The adult bucks stomped their front foot lightly—not to make sound but to show the young deer that there's danger. Both young deer came over and hung out with the three older deer.
The next morning, my partner Sarah went out to the place where the towhee was calling from to look for tracks and sign. Sarah found the tracks of a mountain lion. Later that afternoon, Sarah and I continued trailing that mountain lion for another 40 yards. The lion had traveled exactly where the towhee had been calling.
Pathways: Why should ninja’s learn bird language?
JY: Deer listen to bird language and it keeps them safe. A Ninja could learn from the deer to have awareness of bird language. If invisibility is what we're about as ninjas, it's very similar to the scout tradition of the Apaches, which is where my mentor, Tom Brown learned bird language from. He passed this scout skill on to me.
As a scout or a ninja, you have to move on the landscape and not scare the birds. This would tell other scouts or ninjas that you're there. Through bird language study, I learned to tell that a person is coming from two minutes away. That’s two minutes before they arrive to where I am in the forest. I know a person is coming.
What if you had two minutes to prepare for the arrival of you opponent?
The reason I can tell a person is coming is due to the fact that they're not paying attention to bird language.
The other day, I was in a Scout game that was offered to me by my mentor Tom. We were pretending we were behind enemy lines and had to get to a destination without alerting the Scouts on the other team. When I went to the destination, I made sure not to scare the squirrel, not to scare the robins, and not to scare the juncos.
When I arrived at the destination, the juncos were all feeding peacefully on the ground around me. This means that I managed to be ‘invisible’. If a scout or ninja had been looking for the approach of a human by the alarm that I created, they wouldn't have observed any alarm. I have a relationship with the birds where I pay attention to what they're saying to me. They let me know if I'm getting too close so I don't scare them. I'm always watching the birds, always trying to be careful not to disturb them when I'm moving around. That way I can get close to wildlife without them knowing I'm coming either.
Remember, the deer are like the ultimate ninjas. The deer are like the ultimate scouts. When deer don't want to be seen, they choose invisibility—bird language tells them where YOU are, and they can avoid you with plenty of room to spare.
Sometimes deer come out and feed in your yard. And, there’s other deer who just don't ever want to be seen. Bears don't want to be seen. Wolves don't want to be seen. All of them use bird language to keep away from us.
Think about how that might come in handy for you if you were in a ninja game or a real situation where you had to be invisible, but there might be a scout or a ninja who knows bird language on the other team.
Pathways: How does learning bird language affect us?
JY: Bird language really helps our brains. Also it opens up our awareness of the three dimensional space and has deep neurological benefits that brings us to the quiet mind. In the quiet mind, we’re able to hold silence and not be stressed out by the anxious thoughts that run through our head. Awareness of bird language allows us to be present in the moment. Of course, it allows us to see a lot more when we are moving around.
There's other benefits that emerge as you build relationships with the birds and wildlife right outside your back door.
Pathways: How can someone begin to learn bird language?
JY: Place a chair just outside your door. Simply sit outside several times a day in the same spot and get to know the birds that live right around you. Watch how they are with each other get to know them as individuals. Get to know them as friends over time. You'll learn that this particular junco has a different personality than another one.
Watch how the birds and wildlife interact with each other. You'll see a lot of really interesting things. This has great benefits to your three dimensional spatial problem solving capabilities, and will really sharpen your intuition—this can be really helpful to ninja. This will bring you a greater sense of peace, and this makes you and me function a lot better.
Pathways: Anything else we should know?
JY: The only other thing I would say is practice bird language everyday by going out into your yard to watch birds and wildlife in their routines. Watch as they move between a state of relaxation—when they're feeding, singing or doing other maintenance behaviors—versus when they look tense and nervous. Learn to understand why they're doing that, and eventually you'll figure out “Oh, they suddenly got nervous and all flew away and then a hawk arrived!”
You'll actually learn to see things in advance.
If you want to go even deeper into the practice of Bird Language, I highly recommend Jon’s book, What the Robbin Knows.
One practice that we use with our Ninjas in Nature program to introduce the concept of bird language is to make a sound map while outdoors in nature. This activity works for any age. And, like training in ninjutsu, you learn much more if you can do this skill with partners, where people are scattered across a landscape and then compare notes at the end.
Check out the short video below that shows how to make a bird language map.
The more you practice this skill, the more you will start noticing patterns. Before long you will be on your way to detecting stalking mountain lions and sneaky ninjas in the forest.