The Voices of Birds
I looked out over the pond; some movement drew my eye — the mirror-pond alight with
motion, a white wake in the cattails. Looking for the source of the disturbance, I found a small
bird, half-submerged, with a short black neck and a large fan of feathers extending over their
arched back. A single white dot adorned the plume, encased in the midnight sky. They paddled
slowly, their landing path rippling away behind them, as the pond lost its texture and resumed its mirroring of the dying daylight.
“You see that bird?” I asked my father cautiously, quietly, not wanting to scare it, despite
my distance from the shore.
“Oh,” he said, looking up from his work. “A Bufflehead.”
Names do not leave a rippling wake.
When I return home, I spend time with my parents and their farm. It’s a place of relative
peace punctuated by the keeping of lettuces, dogs, sunflowers, sheep, chickens, carrots and all
manner of other beings. Myself punctuated as well, by various chores — the construction of
fences, the weeding or harvesting; the feeding of the various animals — and by the halting
conversation that such activities bring. For me, these things dislodge the tranquil silences and
breathy voices of firs and alders, and the calm eternity of mirror-ponds; my parents on the other
hand, find that focus comes with farming. One’s life is another’s pause. Perhaps, they see the landing of a bird on the water as a moment of nature punctuating their life, rather than myself, who sees (or attempts to see) an eternity punctuated by the human— a human who often rises to nature’s intrusions with a name. What are we habituated to?
I thought — after stewing on the dispassionately-ripple-less name “Bufflehead” (and
perhaps, the unceremoniousness of my father response to the bird) — of David Abram’s Spell of
the Sensuous, and his discussion of the naming of nature. Koyukon, an Indigenous group
residing along the banks of the Yukon River, “names for birds are often highly onomatopoeic, so
that in speaking their names one is also echoing their cries.” Other stories, in various
Indigenous cultures, reflect this same knowledge — that human naming might be an act of
cocreation, or perhaps even, agentic self-actualization, rather than an imposition. In her piece
“Land Speaking”, Syilx author and scholar Janette Armstrong speaks of her people’s “land
language”: “Through my language I understand that I am being spoken to, I am not the one
speaking.” When my parents first purchased sheep, I thought it would be fun to talk to them. I
released many baahs, with different tempos and pitches, all while glossy eyes stared at me,
perhaps bemused. Soon, they raised their voices too. My parents still joke — despite their
annoyance with the noise I supposedly caused — that I taught the sheep to baah, habituated them out of silence. I was, and am, not so sure; but, I have considered the influence of human speech on the animal world. In the Pacific Northwest, the Barred Owl calls frequently into the evenings, a voice colloquially anglicized as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” From where does this anglicized nature-language come? I did not however, after watching them for some time over the course of several days, ever hear the Bufflehead speak.
We were walking down the easement when we saw a pair. The female — as my father
claimed — had a much smaller splotch of white about the eye yet appeared nearly identical in
every other way. “Is it the same one?” I asked.
“Seems so! A mating pair of Mergansers,” said father.
“Not Buffleheads?” I asked.
“Ah, no — I got it wrong.”
Now more confused by the naming of birds and their genders, I watched the slow paddling pair tread for a while before following my father around the bend.
In learning more about the Bufflehead/Merganser, I found that neither bird — pictured on
the Internet — really looked like the one I had seen. Wikipedia lists 47 “ducks, geese and
waterfowl” resident of Washington state. I searched through them, with little success. The plume
of the “true” Bufflehead projects entirely white, with a black face and beak — green and purple
iridescence marking feathers radiating from black eyes. None of the various Mergansers looked
like anything approximating the small black bird I saw on the lake. I found the Barrow’s
goldeneye, which appears like the bird on the mirror-pond, but without the exaggerated black
plume, nor the dark body riding in cool water. I went for a walk in the cold and stood to watch. I just stood, as they paddled, as the light flattened the outlines of firs and alders. Annie Dillard, in her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, comments: “It is ironic that the one thing that all religious recognize as separating us from our creator—our very self-consciousness—is
also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures.” What is self-consciousness if not the power over the name? Is this what annoyed me about my father’s response to a lovely creature landing on a mirror? It seems that the self-consciousness of his knowledge divided him from his fellow creatures; the habituation of the name divides. I can’t help but wondering what sort of Koyukon or Syilx self-consciousness — if it is indeed self-consciousness, as Dillard claims — accepts the voices birds as the names of birds, accepts that the world speaks. Is there division here?
Back in the Okanagan, I look out the window to watch the Juncos skip through the
branches of the maples. I know this name “Junco”; it has been with me all my life — my own habituation. Of course, I am happy to see these friends: they remind me of childhood and their movement is perfect. One skips nearer. The dark head and short beak contrast the branch. Yet, the wings — tucked against the small body — appear cast in a brown gradient, lightening towards a tan belly; I am surprised, used to the stark grey-brown-black pattern. This bird is unique. They look cautiously at the window, and when I move, they skip to the top of the tree, rejoining their flock, before taking to the sky.