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Bird Lessons - They Teach Us to Listen

Updated: Feb 11, 2023

This was a sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner to the Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains on February 27, 2022. The sermon can be viewed below as either a video or as text, and the entire service is recorded here.

Have you ever been anxious about finding a solution to some problem and this tension surfaced in a dream? We can spend grueling days, and even years trying to resolve the complexity, confusion, and pain of living in this world. Sometimes, sometimes we are graced with moments of clarity on how to go forward.

I was in a rough patch when attending Divinity School about 25 years ago. I was still trying to piece together what I had witnessed and experienced living and working in Guatemala as a parrot conservationist and wildlife veterinarian during their Civil War. One night my search for how to live took place as a tossing and turning during a very long dream. I thought if I just looked hard and long enough, I could discover an important truth, and that I would learn the lesson I was supposed to learn.

Near dawn the answer finally came, and I suddenly awoke. The lesson came from birds in the form of 3 words: parakeets and paracletes. The mood was one of ease, of joy, of purpose, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t know exactly what it meant. I knew what parakeets were but had to look up the word paraclete. It is a word used in the Christian New Testament and means advocate or counselor, as well as bringer of Truth. What I dreamt is what I have been doing ever since with my ongoing ministry – advocating, supporting, and witnessing to parrots and the people who live with them.

Now perhaps this lesson is a bit specific for most of you, so let me share with you how Mary Oliver in her poem, "Sometimes," rephrases “parakeets and paracletes.” She calls it Instructions for a Life: “Pay attention, be astonished, talk about it.” We will use birds as the ingredients for this recipe, but you could choose just about anything – another species, another mindful or spiritual practice, even the back of a cereal box. But birds are prettier, and way easier

That’s because birds are everywhere, well not as much as before, but they are readily available to pay attention to. And we reap benefits when we do. According to Attention Restoration Theory, people can concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature. It helps ease fatigue from informational processing.

Looking at wildlife also helps us experience a state of flow, awaken sensuality, and increase spiritual fulfillment and feelings of well-being. Even if consciously, we might not be tracking birds, subconsciously we are. A study in Europe found that a higher density of birds correlated with a higher degree of life satisfaction, as much as did income. It’s like taking a walk in nature. You reap the same physical and mental benefits even if you don’t want to go for a walk. Birds are doing the same things for you. And if you go out looking for birds, and don’t see many, just the pursuit of them puts you in nature which has immense benefits, such as decreased stress, and increased creativity, kindness and generosity.

Looking up at birds also is good for you. Studies have shown that looking up can lead to greater feelings of awe, as well as being more helpful and ethical. Looking up combined with bird song has been linked to greater mental integration through quieting the inner chatter, and dissolving constructed boundaries of self. Medical doctor, neuroscientist, Zen practitioner, and bird watcher Jim Austin has written much about this subject and points out how in the zen tradition there are multiple stories of people becoming enlightened after seeing or hearing a bird, such as in this story.

The disciple was always complaining to his Master, “You are hiding the final secret of Zen from me.” And he would not accept the Master’s denials. One day they were walking in the hills when they heard a bird sing. “Did you hear that bird sing?” said the Master. “Yes,” said the disciple. “Well, now you know that I have hidden nothing from you.” “Yes.”

Dr. Austin explained to me in neurological and zen terms what had once happened to me. I was out walking in Guatemala studying parrot nests, and my guide was a local Guatemalan. We weren't seeing many birds and so we began to talk. He wanted to tell me of his love of Jesus and Mary, and I put up my guard a little bit, unsure if he was proselytizing me or expecting something from me I could not give. We came up to the forest's edge where the sun was just rising over the tree tops in a shroud of misty fog. Suddenly a loud flock of parrots burst forth from the tree canopy. Before I knew what happened, I was on my knees in the grass, weeping. I guess I had been so startled with awe and beauty; I just fell. Afterwards I was a little embarrassed, but more than anything I had a sudden clarity and connection to humanity and the world. I knew that when people said words like Mary and Jesus, it was like when I said birds and trees. I fell a little bit more in love with life.

Seeing birds might not lead to sudden clarity, but birds as a mindful practice with repetition can build up benefits over the long term. This can be from the general unfocused gaze, such as looking out and up, openly receptive to what comes, and also from the more cognitive focused attempt to identify a bird, or understand their behavior. Both are mindfulness practices with resulting benefits

Cognitive understanding and open reception lead to astonishment, the second step in Mary’s instructions: be astonished. We can grow our awe and wonder by not taking any birds we see for granted. One time, early in our relationship, my spouse, Meredith and I were out looking at birds. He didn’t know much, or that is what I thought. A bird flew over and he said, "What is that?" "Oh, it’s just a crow." " Just a crow!" he said, "Tell that to the crow!" He had me; I was being "species-ist." And there is so much to be in awe about with crows.

They remember human faces and your actions. So, if someone stresses them, they’ll not just avoid you, but warn their friends. So, it’s good not to cross a crow.

Crow calls also distinguish individuals, which means they have names, as do parrots who are taught their names by their parents while still in the nest. Crows and ravens also have native “words,” such as a particular call that means “meat” and use other words to depict particular situations. Parrots have dialects and some birds, such as great tits and finches, use natural syntax in their calls. They order and combine their calls for meaning. Parrots use syntax when not just mimicking, but constructing new meanings with human language.

Humans also share with birds social complexity and cognitive intelligence. In some cases, parrots score better on intellectual tests than college students, even when they hadn’t pulled an all-nighter. Parrots are rated at a level of cognitive ability of that of a 5-year-old human. Every year new studies are published, such as one recently where they found that the brain of some birds, such as crows and parrots, are even more densely innervated than most of the great apes, and are structured in ways similar to apes. It turns out that parrots may be as smart or smarter than chimpanzees and dolphins.

Yet I grew up in a time when birds were considered very dissimilar to humans and low on intelligence. But then came a paper in 2005 that said, whoops, birds may not have a neocortex like we do, but they have a neopallium that serves the same purpose. They evolved their intelligence, as well as their auditory learning abilities and longevity separate from mammals and apes – going all the way back to when they were theropod dinosaurs. Through convergent evolution they had developed traits like us. But we had missed the signs of what was going on in them, because we didn’t look, or only until recently. Perhaps it’s because they look so different from us, we couldn’t see the connections. After all they don’t have the same kind of facial expressions as we do, but the way they move their eyes, bodies, and feathers is a language in and of itself. They say and do similar things, but with sounds, calls, language, and culture that is not the same as ours. By paying attention we can be astonished even across differences.

In the past we didn’t ask, What Would the Parrot Say? We are learning that parrots do not just mimic speech and the earth is not a mirror for us to only see ourselves. Birds can help move us out of seeing the world just as a human projection. They help us listen, pay attention, and be astonished to hear what life is really saying to us. We need them, for as a social species we construct our social reality. We humans make up stories to explain our behavior and motivations, and to make meaning. If we only include humans in the stories, we are leaving out most of reality. And if we just repeat these same stories we have heard, we compound the problem. For the more a story is repeated, no matter even if upon first listening we consider it false, we began to believe it.

We used to say that birds are dumb, don’t have feelings, don’t use tools. We got it wrong, not just about them, but about so many groups of people and other species. There is much to unlearn. We can’t believe anything we believe. So, if we want to live in a reality that is kind, compassionate, and beautiful, and pass it on to future generations, we have to tell stories of interconnected beauty and worth, now. And we have to live it in thought, action, and word. By repeating as much as possible every just and loving word, we incant a better world. And by so doing, we follow Mary’s last instruction – “talk about it.”

What would you say? In our nonprofit organization, One Earth Conservation, we figure out what to say and do with a policy that has us ask, “What would the parrot say? What would the parrot have us do? What would the people who live with parrots say and have us do?” After we listen to what the birds are telling us, we can then share their story of beauty, wonder, and tragedy. The birds of the world are in trouble. The population of North American birds has dropped nearly 30% since 1970. That's almost three billion birds gone. Over half of parrots are endangered, their numbers are quickly decreasing. Other groups of birds are also in serious decline.

We mourn for their loss, and so do they. Magpies have been seen covering a dead companion with grass and flowers, and parrots will become depressed after a mate dies. ­During the West Nile virus pandemic 15 years ago some areas in North America lost over two-thirds of the crows. The remaining crows mourned. They changed. They experienced social and individual trauma. These are the conclusions that scientists came to after studying them during this time. Females didn’t disperse as much from their biological families and territories shrunk. Birds were reluctant to try new things. Crows normally move as small family groups, but these were torn asunder. They forged new families, such as adults taking care of chicks from another pair. Does this response to a pandemic, or loss in your life, sound familiar? We are bound together in this world, across differences, and their story is ours, and it needs to be told.

W.S. Rendra writes:

I hear the cry of a wounded animal;

Someone shoots an arrow at the moon

A small bird has fallen from the nest.

People must be awakened,

Witness must be given,

So that life can be guarded.

Birds tell us of beauty, and tragedy, and no doubt, by facing reality we see that there is a crack in the world. In Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem,” he tells us that the dove will be sold again and again. As will the parrot, and as will the lives and futures of countless others. Yes, Cohen tells us there is a crack in everything, but that is how the light gets in.

I witnessed such a story of cracks and light several years ago in Honduras. An elderly leader of a Miskito village came to me and said, “Come see our scarlet macaw.” Scarlets are wild parrots coveted around the world for pets, and hence they are in trouble. I didn’t really want to see a captured bird, but the woman told me, “No, it’s okay. The bird can fly but chooses to stay here. We rescued her from a wildfire when she was just a chick.” She then turned to Cindy, her granddaughter, and said go get your parrot. In she walked with a rainbow bird, whose length was as tall as she. They proceeded to roll around on the floor together, playing and laughing, both of them about 4 years of age (video below). They were growing up together.

A few years ago, I visited the household and Cindy and the macaw were gone. What happened I asked the grandmother? “It was a terrible thing,” she replied. “Cindy’s mother came to take her back to the city and we lied to Cindy, telling her that the macaw would soon join her. But there was no way that the wild parrot could go with her. Cindy screamed and cried as the car pulled away, 'My macaw, my macaw!' After Cindy left, the macaw pulled out nearly every one of her feathers and wouldn’t eat. Cindy would call and I said the bird was fine.”

The grandmother took a deep breath, and continued. “After about a year the macaw let her feathers grow back in and began to fly further and further. One day a pair of wild macaws flew over and off our macaw went to join them. I almost called her back, for I didn’t know how to tell Cindy that her bird was gone. But then I listened to the birds as they flew away, and thought that this bird deserves to be free.” The grandmother said this as she held her hand over her heart, her voice cracking, and the light of the sun glistening in her tears (Grandmother telling the story in video below).

Hearts break when we open them to birds, and to each other. But oh, how the light gets in and how the light shines out.

One study showed how people who imagine they are a sick or ailing bird will score higher on empathy afterwards and have a greater probability of working for environmental concerns. Being with birds teaches us important lessons on how to live this life.

Pay attention. Be astounded. Tell about it. And oh yes, repeat as necessary.

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