Bird Spotting: Some Ways Your Brain Helps You

In my last post, “Spanish and Poetry: What We Lost By Translating”, I illustrated how the mind connects visual things with the sounds and names. Well, the same thing works with full-grown people who aren’t working to learn a new language. And guess what that is? Birds!

Wherever you live, there’s going to be some sort of bird, unless you live in Antarctica, or the Arctic ice-sheet, where there isn’t much chance of espying one of our feathery friends. And where there are birds, there are bird calls. On a simply gorgeous, warm spring day you’ve probably heard the symphony of birdsong in the air, right? You can probably pick out the call of a crow, the buzz of a humming-bird, and possibly the twitter of a house wren. But how do you know what call’s what? The same way that you learn a language, of course!

Let’s say a pretty bird lands in front of you while you’re lounging in your hammock with lunch and a fruit smoothie. You have absolutely no idea what the bird is, but it’s a pretty blue color anyway. Hopping around, it opens its mouth and makes a short peep! From the color, it’s probably a blue-jay of some sort, or a bluebird, and now your brain has instantly connected the bird with the sound it makes. Since you’re in your imagination and can have absolutely anything that you want there–yes, including that–you pick up your just so very handy-dandy bird book and flip through the pages. Well, what do you know? It is a bluebird, an Eastern Bluebird to be precise.

Later, you take a walk. The sounds of birds are still echoing in the air, but you hear the peep! from earlier. Immediately you recognize that sound and connect it with the bird and…hey-presto! You know that somewhere, somewhere in those trees nearby, is hopping a small, blue bird.

I’m a bird-watcher. Each little birdsong that I hear I try to identify, and wonder away if I can’t figure out what it is. You could find me standing outside and talking to a friend, when a distant call reaches my ears and I hear with a hastened heartbeat the call of a woodpecker, or perhaps a hawk, or another, familiar bird. Or I could be hiking along a trail and hear a rustle of a single leaf, freeze, and pick out the small hopping shadow there.

But how can your brain pick out that minute motion? To find out, you have to rewind a few thousand years to when man was a hunter. Your brain is–now, remember that I don’t have a degree in this–probably still wired in that way to keep an eye out for movement and KILL IT!!! to eat for dinner. You can pick out where a ticking watch is coming from if you don’t know where it is, which is part of the predatory part of your brain.

So, overall, learning things like birds or fish or trees is pretty much like learning a language for an infant. Associating objects and sounds that you don’t have a specific name for is easier than new names for things you knew already!



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