Tag Archives: animal love

Vernal Voices

I’m delighted to note that my new essay about the meaning of music, The Voice of Tāne: Returning Wild Musick to its Place, at a Price, has just been published in About Place Journal. Click here to read.

Fresh green of spring in West Seattle.

Soft green mornings on my deck are filled with new music these days. The calls of our regulars—towhees, juncoes, robins, jays, and crows—have been joined by more lyrical tones of recent arrivals. The chattery trill of a Wilson’s Warbler first announced spring’s arrival in our yard, his clear tones piercing the thick woods of the wetland.

Wilson’s Warbler

Soon his song was joined by the quiet, clear whistles of a reclusive Pacific-slope Flycatcher, tiny of body but proud of sound.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Nearby, Orange-crowned Warblers added their arched tremolo to the choir.

Orange-crowned Warbler with spider prey

Most recently, a little trio of Black-headed Grosbeaks joined the chorus. At first shy and leery, they’d disappear from my feeder as soon as I moved inside the house. But now they’ve grown accustomed to my face as I sit quietly here on the deck, and all three, two males and a female, happily gorge themselves on sunflower seeds. When they retreat to the young cedars at the edge of the deck or into the old pear tree in the yard, they warble their lovely whistling melody, a cascading waterfall of pure tones.

Black-headed Grosbeaks, male (upper) and female (lower) in cedar beside deck

* * * * *

In The Moth Snowstorm, his lovely celebration of nature’s beauty, Michael McCarthy writes passionately of his joy upon examining online GPS data from tagged cuckoos in Africa one February, realizing that their northward migration in the Congo meant that from 4000 miles away, he could see spring coming.

Here in Seattle, the arrival of spring migrants is our clue, presaging an end to our long months of what locals call mizzle, the moist grayness that’s not quite mist, not quite rain.

Incessant April mizzle

Our winter starts in November and December with stiff south winds that bring delicious big winds and heavy rains, a welcome intensity that brings our perfect summers to a dramatic close: the snuggle season where we cozy up on the couch by the fire, watching the Doug firs and the cedars sway in their autumn dance in the early dark.

Winter view from our kitchen window: Douglas Firs in the unending rain


But by March…April…May, we’re ready for real sunlight, not just the lightening behind the clouds as the days grow longer. This year’s been a good one, with many more clear days than we’re used to. Usually, though, the music of the migrants means we’ve made it through yet another long gray doze, and we can allow ourselves to hope for light and new energy.

My partner Rob and I are as much audio folks as visual. He’s a composer and conductor, we’re both singers, we both play in our wonderful community orchestra. Spring’s visuals—fresh green woodlands, the delicate tips of the new leaves, the brightening sky—are all important to our relief at the dawn of the season of light. But without the chatter and trills and warbles, our joy in spring would be muffled, hushed; we’d be missing half of our vernal souls.

What would it mean for us if the birds’ songs were silenced, hushed by lack of food or safe places to hide or unfamiliar predators? Over fifty years ago, Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring warned of the loss of birds to chemical poisoning. We’ve managed to make real progress in diminishing that threat to the vernal voices. Yet other challenges have muted their music.

And what might song’s loss mean for the birds themselves? I imagine a little songbird, perhaps a Western Tanager, newly arrived in his spring home after an exhausting migration, happily full with seed from my feeder or native plants, excitedly starting his first song for a new love.

Western Tanager male, singing. Who’s there to listen to his song?

But where is she? Where are his fellow singers? What happens to his music? What might it mean for him, for his fellow birds, and for us when song’s silenced? And what can we do to help preserve those precious chatters and warbles and trills for our shared future?

In my new essay, The Voice of Tāne: Returning Wild Musick to its Place, at a Price, published this month in About Place Journal, I explore some of these questions in the context of New Zealand’s songbirds and their story. I hope you’ll take a look.

And while you’re reading, perhaps you can find a quiet place in the sun to enjoy love’s lullabies ringing through the soft spring air.

Singing Bellbird, Tiritiri Matangi, New Zealand



Engaging Gazes: Mysteries of Animal Presence

Tiptoeing towards the back of the clearing, I was looking for the brown creepers I’d witnessed a few days earlier, flattening themselves against the bark of the big Doug Fir. It was such strange behavior, and I was hoping to see whether there might be a nest under the thick bark.

Brown Creeper in concealment posture

Brown Creeper in concealment posture


Brown Creeper in concealment posture - closeup

Brown Creeper in concealment posture – closeup

I stopped a few yards from the tree, watching as silently as possible so the creepers might fly down and resume their strange posture. It took several minutes of waiting before I realized that silently watching me was a young Cooper’s Hawk, finishing a meal or just resting on top of a brush pile near the fir. I turned slowly to face him full on. He poked around the brush for a few minutes, then fly-hopped down and disappeared. Drat. I figured that in a moment I’d catch his blurred form flying to the forest across the clearing.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

But no: his head reappeared above a closer brush pile. He walked dignifiedly over it, then paused for a while. We locked gazes.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk: The Animal Gaze

What an honor, to be embraced in the gaze of a wild animal, free to flee at any moment, but who chooses to share a calm long look.

In Estes Park, Colorado over Thanksgiving, mule deer and elk similarly held me in view.

Mule Deer, Estes Park, CO

Rocky Mountain Elk, Estes Park, CO

Each of these encounters is a blessing. But the wild hawk’s gaze was particularly potent. The elk and deer are residents of the Estes Valley, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park and populated by humans, so they’re pretty used to human contact. The young Cooper’s Hawk, though, wasn’t acclimated to close encounters of the human kind; it hadn’t been that long since he learned to fly and left his nearby natal nest, and his part of our park isn’t heavily traveled by human walkers.

Did the hawk engage my look simply because I’m something unusual in his birdy world? Or could he have recognized me as a fellow being, a creature with a mind behind the eyes, like him?

How rare it is for us humans to be encountered in the wild by an animal who seems without fear of us, and even more powerfully, to whom we are of calm interest. To see ourselves in their eyes, to be recognized in some way as having a presence, perhaps even being of a kindred nature, perhaps, ultimately, with personhood — such an experience reminds us who we are. That yes, we are giftedly animal, we belong, we too dwell here as earth-creatures in community with others whom we dearly love through the veil of species-separation.

The animal gaze has long been considered a special gift, especially the “natural zoological gaze” of an animal unconfined, in its wild native habitat [1].Some deep part of us yearns for this recognition. There is a deep wound in our souls, I think, bleeding from our sense of being torn from the animal world.

We express our yearning for animal presence in diverse ways. Tourists like to hand-feed wild sheep, interviews indicate, because they want to feel trusted by an animal who takes food from their outstretched palm [2]. A young girl is in love with dolphins, reaching out to feed them for $7 at SeaWorld – and when she forgets the rule about not moving the paper dish with the food in it, triggering an inadvertent bite as the dolphin grabs the moving dish, she prays for the dolphin’s safety, not her own [3]. People put their own lives at stake rather than evacuate without their pets during Hurricane Katrina [4].

Illuminating research is being published these days about the human-animal bond that can heal this wound: for instance, Bekoff’s Minding Animals, Frohoff and Peterson’s Between SpeciesKalof and Montgomery’s Making Animal Meaning, and large numbers of articles in scholarly journals. We’re living in a time when there’s a real resurgence of interest in this ancient archetypal relationship.

What does it take to increase our opportunities for engaging gazes with a wild, free animal?

  • Quiet presence. We have to learn to calm down ourselves, to sit still in one place, to not be alarming.
  • Familiarity with where animals live. Spend time observing animals in their habitat. Watch where they hang out and where they hide. Learn how they behave and how their behaviors vary at different times of day. Over time, with patience, we may be blessed with an animal’s acceptance of our presence.
  • Respect. We can allow an animal to recognize our presence without threatening the animal — or feeding it. Let it come to us rather than going to it, and stay still if we’re so honored. And if the animal doesn’t choose to encounter us, we respect that choice.
  • Peace. If an animal isn’t interested in us, that’s perfectly fine. What a privilege it is simply to get to watch or hear it in its own home, close up or distant!

I’ve become “engazed” with the Barred Owls in my park, who are beloved by many of my human neighbors. Some of us have had the privilege of watching these owl life-mates hunt, feed their babies, teach their growing children how to walk along high branches and how to navigate through the forest, encouraging them when they fall and welcoming them when the youngsters make it back up into a safe tree.

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

I visit the owls’ hangouts each time I walk in the forest, hoping to have my heart filled a little fuller by their gaze. Today, I was lucky. I left a little less animal-lonely, a little more healed.

The gaze of a Barred Owl

The gaze of a Barred Owl

Raven: Mystery of spirit and science

High-pitched squeals pierced the air as the bald eagles above me announced their love to the world. She flattened her back accommodatingly; he arched his wings and rose over her.

Bald Eagles in love

Afterwards, he stood for a moment on her back as he dismounted, then they yodeled together in apparent delight.

Eagles yodeling after mating

At the end of all this drama, I walked on into the forest, still hearing the increasingly distant calls between this long-term couple, hoping (as they surely must be) that their romance would finally result in an eaglet or two later this spring.

Suddenly the forest rang with a resonant QUORK. (Click to hear the call.)

Raven was back! Raven’s deep, authoritative voice took control of the air. The eagles’ joyous calls suddenly seemed timid and gossipy.

Raven profile, almost obscured deep in woods

I’d encountered ravens in my park for one brief period in each of the past three years: first in January, the next year in February, and now in March. They’re fairly uncommon in Seattle, so each time it’s been a thrill. This year there were two, calling to each other across the forest as they flew restlessly from tree to tree.

The presence in the forest was unambiguously Raven, not “a raven”; the voice made that clear. Raven: Spirit of Darkness, Creator of humans, Trickster.

Illustration by Gustav Doré, from a remarkable edition of Poe's "The Raven" (1884). Click image for Wikimedia link.

A depiction of the Haida creation story, in which Raven opens an oyster shell on the beach to release the first humans. Sculptor: Bill Reid. University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology. Photographer: Joe Goldberg. Click image for Wikimedia link.

Ravens in Winter was my introduction to the passion of naturalist Bernd Heinrich for ravens and other corvids. Heinrich is a naturalist of depth, devotion, and humility—and a gifted artist as well. Observing wild ravens, Heinrich witnessed behavior that seemed altruistic: discovering food in the frozen Maine winter, ravens called to each other rather than scarfing down everything they could gobble up before anyone else arrived. Puzzled, he pursued the scientific mystery of this apparent generosity, spending many frigid nights with his avian “research associates” until he finally figured out what was going on.

Raven seems to be altruistic both in the Maine woods and in Haida mythology. But is there just a glint of mischief in his eye each time?

Heinrich carried his raven research forward in Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, becoming a virtual raven family member as he lived with ravens to try to understand their intelligence, their affection, their language, their play.

I won’t spoil Heinrich’s compelling story of his investigations in the Maine winter – you’ll have to read it for yourself! And none of us have yet learned the end of Creator Raven’s adventure in letting us humans out of the oyster shell…will the Trickster have the last word?

Whether we marvel at Raven through the disciplined work of science or through awe of his spirit-presence, it’s an honor to be in his company. Raven, thank you for your visit to my little forest, and I hope you’ll return. Your voice still rings in my ears.

Raven, with a twinkle. Colorado, 2010.

Hedonic Ethology!

Now there’s a field I’d love to get into!

In today’s New York Times, Katherine Bouton reviews what sounds like a truly marvelous book: “The Exultant Ark” by Jonathan Balcombe. “Hedonic ethology” is the study of animal pleasure, a term coined by Balcombe.

According to Bouton, Balcombe bases his conclusion that animals feel pleasure on three arguments: it makes sense in terms of evolution, we know of at least one animal that feels pleasure for sure (us), and since it’s clear that they feel pain, why not pleasure as well?

Of course animals feel pleasure. That’s so obvious. One look at my orange tabby’s face as she purrs her heart out while kneading the bountiful tummy of her stepbrother tells me that.

Silver (left) and Minnie (right): Love and hedonism

An older family member of mine used to insist that “it’s all instinct” and that animals weren’t capable of feeling pleasure. His conviction came from his religious faith, which (to his understanding) asserted that humans are so special that we have little in common with animals. And some philosophers insist that it’s anthropomorphism to attribute to animals forms of interiority that we ourselves have experienced: an anthropomorphism that they consider both inappropriate and disrespectful of the animal’s own experience.

But to me it sells animals short to believe we don’t share with any of them this fundamental capability. It also sells us short, since that belief deprives us of a meaningful opportunity to empathize and perhaps even learn from animals about pleasure.

Still, as obvious as Balcombe’s thesis seems to me, I can’t wait to read this book. Hedonic ethology, here I come!