Your brain is evolved to go birding, even when you are not


Symplocarpus foetidus, skunk cabbage flowers, some of the earliest in the spring.

Spring is such a sweet word here on the 44th parallel. All winter long we ache for it, and then suddenly it’s here, and it is a revelation each and every year. I recently read a memoir about living in Iceland (my next destination) and the author described the light as “unimaginable”, as in, the light that returned to Iceland in the spring was unimaginable in the depth of winter. That is exactly how I feel about warm weather in Maine. Somewhere in the depth of winter I lose the ability to imagine what it feels like to walk outside through air so warm you cease to be aware of the boundary between your skin and the space around it. Your skin knows it is spring by the warmth of the sun on your face, the softness of the humid air on your body, and the rare and joyful days when you can walk outside without a jacket.

Corylus cornuta, Beaked Hazelnut, in bloom. One of the first to show in the spring. #hotpinknature

Corylus cornuta, Beaked Hazelnut, in bloom. One of the first to show in the spring. #hotpinknature

And yet, the revelations are not reserved for only the skin. Visually things reappear as the snow pack melts, dog toys, garden tools, the tiny green shoots of the chives and the daffodils. The first wild flowers are tiny, most people wouldn’t know they were flowers at all, you have to know where to look to see them. When the air warms and moistens, smells return-rotting leaves, broken balsam branches, open water. For me though, the sense that is most enlivened by the start of spring is the auditory one; as much as I love the warm air and sunlight, the increasingly complicated soundtrack of spring is the sign I love best.

Winter is a season of silence, punctuated by gusty wind, the breaking of snow laden branches and the twittering of the same familiar avian cast at the bird feeder: chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, gold finches, purple finches, redpolls, tit mice, blue jays, and downy and hairy woodpeckers. During the right kind of storm, if you are patient, you can hear the snowflakes hitting the ground. Go for a walk on a bright cold morning and the snow creaks under your boot steps. Beyond that the bright blue sky and the darkest of night make no noise. Sparse is winter’s soundscape.

Spring by contrast is an every growing cacophony. This winter was cold enough that our precipitation was all snow, and the sound of the spring’s first rainstorm on my metal roof was a delightful surprise. I enjoyed it so much I stayed in bed to listen to it, rather than go out in search of amphibians on the move for their “big night”. More so than weather, the sounds of animals coming back to life are what most of us think of as the sound track to spring. Chickadees may have been singing since January or February, but the woodcock is the first bird I hear that tells me that winter’s back has indeed been broken. Next comes the phoebes, and the wood frogs, then hermit thrushes, then the peepers. I heard a familiar whistle and looked up to see a broad winged hawk pass overhead. The cold gray weather of a couple of weeks ago slowed the northward progression of the spring song bird migration, but the last few days of warming sun has brought some of the earliest species. Earlier this week I heard my first Black and White Warbler, followed the next day by my first Black Throated Green. Now that the air is warming in earnest, each day brings a new voice to the outdoor audio mix.

There’s a bird I’ve been hearing for months, singing a wonderful melodic rambling song. Another I’ve noticed in just the last couple of days that sings a simple two note multiple beat song. And while I know that at some point I’ll figure out what they are, I’ve enjoyed just coming to recognize these songs just as they are. I would encourage you to do the same. Don’t worry about identifying the bird you are hearing, at least, not at first. Just let your brain do what it does best, let it tune into the sounds around you out side. Like an old fashioned radio, you just need to spin the dial to the background bird frequency and your brain will do the rest. Suddenly without realizing you heard anything, an awareness will bubble up into your consciousness that you just heard something you don’t recognize, or do recognize but haven’t heard yet this season. Many a spring morning I have been draw into consciousness, eyes flying open as I am pushed out of that light early morning sleep by that “just below the conscious” part of my brain, as it got excited by hearing a new bird song, and had to wake me up to share the excitement. We are evolved to do this, to pay close attention to the goings on in the world around us. All of our senses, dulled as they are by modern life, have hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated evolutionary honing for just this purpose. A couple hundred years of being industrialized doesn’t make that go away.

We notice blooming trees too. Acer rubra, Red Maple.

We notice blooming trees too. Acer rubrum, Red Maple.

There’s good genetic evidence for this too, scientists have shown that humans and birds use the same genes to fire up the same parts of their respective brains used in communication. I don’t know if birds’ brains are stimulated when I talk to them as I walk through the woods, but I am sure that my human brain responds to bird song, even when I am not consciously listening to birds, and it is a remarkable experience. So this spring let yourself just hear the birds, let your brain recognize and sort out the different songs, get familiar with the patterns and then you will notice when they change. This is the brain’s true work.



Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.