I’ve been thinking lately about birds. It started when I read a magazine article about a woman whose life was too fast-paced and she kind of fell into bird-watching as an antidote. Stopping to notice the birds helped her slow down and feel more present in her life. This struck a chord with me.
So, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been taking early morning walks around my Calavera Hills neighborhood, and really paying attention to the birds. We have so many amazing types of birds in the canyons and lagoons and neighborhoods of Carlsbad. And, yes, paying more attention to them has surely been calming, enlightening, a lesson in mindfulness.
As I wandered through the hills of our neighborhood the other day (somehow walking an entire hour uphill — how is that possible?), I also started thinking about the birds on another level. About how much our attention to birds says about our attention to something else that is so important to a conscious life: community.
You see, I’ve always loved watching birds casually with my kids — especially the quails and hawks that sometimes grace us with their landings on the back fence behind our townhouse, and the swoon-worthy pelicans soaring overhead at . Yet, I haven’t really gotten to know the birds in our city beyond those obvious ones.
I don’t know what kind of birds are nesting in the eaves above our front door (though I continually defend them to my neighbor who keeps advising me to spray the nest with a hose so the birds don’t ruin the house paint). And, I know when I call the scrub jays out back “blue jays,” (a leftover from my early youth on the East Coast, where we actually had blue jays) or call any tiny bird a chickadee, that it’s incorrect; but I do it anyway.
Pondering this as I trod over sidewalks and dirt paths, I realized that the choice to pay attention, or not pay attention, to the birds in our community is similar to the choice of whether to really pay attention to one another.
In our human world, we can choose to either get to know the people who pass through our sights each day — who deliver our mail, check us out at the grocery — or we can choose to have them remain nameless and identity-less. I think about how much it warms me to know the names, and a few personal facts, about some of the people who fly by me in my daily life. To know that Marcia, our postal carrier for several years, donated her long hair to charity. That Amy, the children’s librarian at , has a mother-in-law who is a Montessori teacher. That Dougie at loves storm chasing. Or that Angel the gardener has a young son and daughter, as I do.
Knowing the names and a bit about “the people in my neighborhood” makes our interconnectedness as a community feel more real, almost tangible. We may not know each other well, but we know we are all individuals, with stories, hopes and heartbreaks, co-existing together. Understanding this is what helps us remember to be kind to, and generous with, one another; to respect and care for each another, from our daily manners to our votes.
If we choose to remain nameless and disconnected from others, it is easier to justify such actions as littering, speaking rudely, parking in the handicap spot without a permit, or cutting in line. The little things that make or break a sense of community, all the way to the bigger things like vandalism and hate crimes. It is the choice of whether to know others in our community that determines much about what our sense of accountability to others in our community will be.
When I apply this thinking to birds, I realize it is the same. When birds are just nameless, identity-less creatures we barely notice when they pass us by, it is easier to spray their nests with hoses, chop down their homes, pollute their drinking source.
If we get to know the names of these birds, see their individuality, we can feel a greater interconnectedness with them as well — a kindred spirit-ness as fellow creatures who inhabit this planet of ours. If we think of birds as part of our community, then our community becomes deeper and broader — an interspecies community, if you will — and our accountability to those birds, other animals and the Earth informs our everyday choices.
In the past few weeks, I’ve come to want to know the names of the birds in Carlsbad that I haven’t known before — their songs, their favorite snacks and nesting places. I want to see their individuality — and share these discoveries with my kids so that they, too, can feel a real connection to these creatures and the natural world that surrounds us.
I don’t presume that I will become an avid bird-watcher, but I have taken some steps to at least get to know my local avian brothers and sisters a bit better. I went into and bought a cool, color-coded book that will help my family identify the birds around our home, and pulled out my husband’s surf binoculars to get a better look at them. I looked up the regular birding walks at and San Diego Botanic Garden down the road. In short, I started paying attention to the birds in our community.
The article I read quoted a wildlife biologist saying that bird-watching is a gateway activity to environmentalism, because once you notice birds, you necessarily also notice their habitats and want to protect them. Perhaps this is similar to what I’m saying here. If we know one another, see one another — from our local grocers to our local birds — we are more likely to feel a sense of community with one another. And, in turn, we are more likely to care for one another when it matters most.
So, really, paying attention birds equates to caring for our community? A little birdie told me this is not so far-fetched.