What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young

Reviewed by Ann DiFiore

Jon Young is an expert on bird language. Growing up near New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, Jon became fascinated with the wildlife outside his door. Under a local naturalist’s tutelage, he learned to recognize birds, their various calls, and the role they played in their habitat. He has since studied with San Bushmen in the Kalahari and indigenous peoples all over the world, learning techniques for tracking and observation, as well as their philosophies towards wildlife, the natural world, and our place in it.

Today he lives in Northern California and teaches seminars on bird language. Birds, he believes, are the watchers and sentinels of the natural world. Understanding bird language and behavior is key to learning how to access, connect with, and understand nature.

By learning the primary, or baseline, forms of vocalization—songs, companion calls, territorial aggression and adolescent begging—we can recognize alarm calls that break the pattern. Young has his students establish a daily “sit spot,” a place to observe bird activity and calls each day, becoming familiar with birds, feeding patterns, habits, and vocalizations. That familiarity opens up a new world of understanding and awareness: “…ultimately the birds will yield to us the first rite of passage:  a close encounter with an animal otherwise wary of our presence” (p. 173). 

Young’s insights into the complexity of bird language (chickadees vary alarm calls to indicate a specific predator, its proximity and approach), the uniqueness of each species and its behavior, infuse the reader with new appreciation for birds and all wildlife. 

In What the Robin Knows, Young discusses human impact on wildlife and suggests we adopt a routine of invisibility, an attitude of awareness, respect, and calm that minimizes disturbance. Heedless humans are responsible for bird plows—an alarm shape or form taken by birds when fleeing predators. While the humans may not mean harm, predators take advantage of disoriented songbirds, swooping down as they flee, using a technique called “wake hunting.” 

Master Naturalists will find Young’s information on bird communications and behavior fascinating. The techniques he uses to promote nature awareness and connection would be valuable to educators and interpreters. 

A section of the book that I found especially enjoyable and eye-opening related to observations of companion calls between mated pairs of cardinals’ daily visitors to my bird feeder. Their basic exchange is a “chip…chip” uttered every five seconds. I learned that what seemed like a bird version of humming is actually a means of checking on each other’s safety:

“Are you there?” 

“Yes, are you okay?”

“Everything’s fine, are you?”

When a “chip” goes unanswered, the mate will follow up with a more insistent “CHIP!” and then go to investigate. Young witnessed a concerned male fly towards his lady’s last “chip” to find her rocketing towards a shrub, a sharp-shinned hawk in hot pursuit. The male flung himself in front of the sharpie, spinning the hawk off course and saving his mate—a true Valentine’s Day cardinal’s tale. 

As Young observes, “If we learn to read the birds. . .we can read the world at large” (p. 173). What the Robin Knows is a great primer.

Participate in CaterpillarsCount! this spring

Learn about the Fairfax Master Naturalist citizen science project, CaterpillarsCount! (Service code C254 if you’re an FMNer), including the results from last year and plans to continue the project this year. 

FMN efforts are part of a larger study to determine whether seasonal activity of plants, insects, and birds are all responding synchronously to climate change. 

CaterpillarsCount! is part of a National Science Foundation-funded study with University of North Carolina, Georgetown University, and University of Connecticut as lead universities.  Additional volunteers are needed to continue to collect data this year during spring and summer. 

Guest presenters: Elise Larsen, PhD, Georgetown University and Don Coram, PhD, Fairfax Master Naturalist. 

Location:  Walker Nature Center, Reston, VA. 

Date and time:   April 23, 7:00 – 8:00 pm.

The presentation counts toward FMN continuing education credits

Nature photography on the National Mall: Birds, Butterflies, & Tarantulas

The group, led by Barbara Saffir, nature photographer and author, will meet at the FDR Memorial book store/visitor center on the Tidal Basin on Sunday, 24 February 2019 at 8 am, approximately. Then they’ll hike about 4ish miles total — with lots of stops — first along the Tidal Basin looking for snazzy-looking wintering ducks & then onto Constitution Gardens on the National Mall for more ducks and other birds. Perhaps they’ll even stumble upon an albino squirrel, a red fox, or other capital critter. Afterward, our “adults-only” group will head to the Smithsonian’s National Museum for Natural History for its live insect zoo and live butterfly exhibit. The museum opens at 10 am and you need to BUY IN ADVANCE your own individual butterfly tickets for 10:30 am ($7 to $7.50) . The tarantula feeding is at 11:30 a.m. Butterfly tickets are here:

If they aren’t tuckered out by then, they can optionally stop for lunch at the National Gallery of Art’s Pavilion Cafe by the ice skating rink. https://www.nga.gov/visit/cafes/pavilion-cafe.html

Snow/ice cancels entire event. Rain just cancels the hike but they’ll still go to the Smithsonian and then to the indoor U.S. Botanical Garden.

Parking on Ohio Drive should be plentiful at 8 am. National Park Service may have installed meters, as threatened, so read the meters carefully to see if parking is free. Closest Metro is Smithsonian. https://www.wmata.com/rider-guide/stations/upload/evacuation/20.054.pdf

You might want to bring both short and long camera lenses. Also, it is 80° and humid inside the butterfly exhibit. They will be in the museum for about a half hour before we enter that room, but you might want to bring a bag to prevent condensation on your camera before or after.

Register here.

Spotted turtle field technician wanted

Northeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (NEPARC) is seeking one field technician to assist in a conservation project studying spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) movement and population demographics at the Fort Belvoir U.S. Army Installation. The technician will be assisting with a Ph.D. study, that is embedded within a larger effort to develop a decision support tool for species management at landscape and regional scales, which, ultimately, would increase viability of threatened/endangered species.

Technician duties will include visual encounter surveys, hoop-net trapping, VHF radio-telemetry, capturing and marking turtles, blood collection, vegetation surveys, and data entry. This is a four-month position, starting March 5th, 2019 and ending on July 2nd, 2019. Start and end dates can be flexible within reason.

Housing will not be provided, and transportation to and from the installation is not provided. Salary will be $11.00-$12.00/hr dependent upon qualifications. Additional compensation for mileage will be available.

Successful applicants will demonstrate communication skills, be able to work independently, and be comfortable working on an active military base. The student will be exposed to field conditions including extremes of temperature, humidity, and rain. In addition, field work involves long days/nights traversing through swamps, streams, and other wetlands. The student must be comfortable with catching amphibians and reptiles, and wading in waist-deep waters. Previous experience with identification, capture, and marking of amphibians and reptiles is helpful, but not required. Previous experience with VHF radio telemetry is preferred, but not required.

Applicants must have current eligibility to work in the U.S, a valid U.S. driver’s license, and will need to pass a background check before hiring. To apply, submit a cover letter, resume, and contact information for three references in one pdf file to eruther2@illinois.edu (Ellery Ruther). Please indicate the following in your subject line, “2019 Turtle Technician”. Applications will be reviewed as they are received. If you have any questions please email Ellery Ruther at eruther2@illinois.edu.

Prince William Master Gardener Vegetable Gardening Series, Feb 16, 23 & Mar 2

Haymarket-Gainesville Library
14870 Lightner Rd, Haymarket, VA 20169
Saturdays, 16 & 23 Feb and 2 Mar 2019

Growing our own food, using nature as a guide and incorporating sustainable practices is good for our bodies and good for the earth. This series of 3 classes cover the essential topics — planning the garden, using organic sustainable techniques to develop healthy productive gardens, and growing good garden soil. These practices are on display at the Prince William Master Gardener Teaching Garden in Bristow and showcased in their Saturday in the Garden programs. Taught by the Master Gardener Cook’s Garden Team. This is a free program, but please register by email or call 703-792-7747.

Helping your stream through citizen science

Chapman DeMary Trail, Purcellville VA
Sunday, 10 March 2019
2-5 pm

Join Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy for a stream-side demonstration and discussion examining how citizen science surveys can be used to assess local stream quality. You will see how biomonitoring surveys are conducted. You will have a chance to look at the data and at aquatic macro invertebrates. They will discuss how the data is analyzed and how it can be used to improve our streams. At the end, you will have the opportunity to sign up for a spring survey, led by one of Loudoun Wildlife’s citizen science stream monitoring teams. Registration is limited, RSVP to Loudoun Wildlife.

Sign up for Belvedere Elementary School’s Eco-Day

Stacey Evers, VMN and Environmental Educator, is looking for master naturalists to present environmental programs to students at Belvedere Elementary School on Thursday, June 6, 2019, as part of their annual Eco-Day. Belvedere is at Columbia Pike and Sleepy Hollow Road in the Bailey’s Crossroads/east Annandale part of Fairfax County and is very close to Arlington. Your preparation time and actual service would apply toward service hours.

Please contact Stacey soonest to engage:

703-346-8530 |greenBELVEDERE.wordpress.com

During Eco-Day, grade levels pre-K-5 will circulate through stations of hands-on activities from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. However, they can accommodate a smaller window of time if needed and would welcome one-time presentations and activities such as hikes and surveys that require specific start and end times. The programs could be as simple as sharing a skull or shell collection, identifying insects with students in the pollinator gardens, or sharing activities related to bird beak adaptations. They are also interested in activities that incorporate art or other disciplines beyond science.

You will receive beverages, lunch, and a table and canopy if you need them. That said, presentations/activities must involve hands-on learning or inquiry and not be static displays.

How Recycling Works in Fairfax County, Feb 12th

Thompson Center

6090 Kingstowne Village Parkway, Alexandria, VA 22315

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

7:30 pm

Join Fairfax County Recycling Coordinator Erica Carter as she shares what happens to our recyclables after they’re picked up from our curb and what we can do to reduce the amount of trash we produce. Sponsored by the Kingstowne Cares Conservation Club. View the event on Facebook or Nextdoor.

Zooniverse Citizen Science Projects

The Zooniverse is a collection of web-based Citizen Science projects that use the efforts and abilities of volunteers to help researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them. Review or transcribe data from centuries-old logs of whaling ships, listen to bat calls, identify marine invertebrates, or watch a red hawk nest to learn more about their calls and behavior. There are dozens of projects available in a variety of disciplines. To volunteer, just go to the Projects page, choose one you like the look of, and get started.

Hear Mike Bishop on bluebirds, Feb 26

Learn about local efforts to bring back the Eastern Bluebird from Master Naturalist and Virginia Bluebird Society’s 2017 Bluebird of the Year Mike Bishop. He’ll discuss history and recent grassroots efforts to revive populations in Virginia.

Sully Government Center

4900 Stonecroft Blvd, Chantilly, VA

February 26, 7.30-8.30 pm

Admission is free and families are welcome

Approved for continuing education credit for FMN members