Nikon Monarch 7

aba events

The Mystery of Communication: If You Could Talk to One Bird, Which Would It Be?

The immensity of the psychic and linguistic distances between us and birds is something we rarely think about. It doesn’t make us sad that we cannot talk to or become friends with the birds we encounter in the field, at least not typically. Which is exactly why I found the chapter “The Friendly Bicolored Antbird” from the ornithologist Alexander Skutch’s memoir A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm so moving.

Skutch describes in great detail the emergence of a relationship between him and one of the resident birds of the forest adjacent to his home, a bicolored antbird. The bicolored antbird is an army ant attendant, one of many species of tropical birds from various families that follow army ant swarms through the tropical rainforest, picking off insects desperately fleeing from the ants. One day, as Skutch walked through his forest, he noticed a bicolored antbird following him. As Skutch advanced along the trail, the bird would snatch up insects scared into revealing themselves by Skutch’s movements. The bird was using him in the same way it relied on army ants to reveal camouflaged insects, which is fascinating in itself.

Skutch goes on to describe how he spent sixteen months having similar interactions with the same bicolored antbird. He named him Jimmy, short for Gymnopithys bicolor, and they went on dozens of walks together before Jimmy disappeared. At the end of the chapter, Skutch reflects:

No other free bird that I have known has trusted me so greatly, has so unhesitatingly approached the human form, which most wild creatures dread. Nevertheless, our relationship lacked something to make it wholly satisfying. For this, it needed some exchange of thoughts, some mutual revelation of sentiments or feelings.

Skutch’s lament is one I haven’t read or heard articulated anywhere else, probably because the impossibility of a scenario where we could communicate with birds is so clearly farfetched. But it’s the earnestness and tenderness of Skutch’s thoughts that make him my favorite writer.

A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Skutch’s forest. I spent two weeks exploring his home and encountering in life fascinating birds I had until then known only from his memoirs, like black-faced antthrush, speckled tanager, and great tinamou. But nothing prepared me for the moment when I noticed a shadow whir across the path in front of me into a tangled thicket. I peered carefully into the foliage, seeing nothing, and then, beneath a leaf, a face, a blue ring of skin around the brown eye of a bicolored antbird. The bird hopped forward onto a more visible part of the bush and stared at me.

I knew what to do. I started walking and made sure to brush my boots against the leaf litter. The bicolored antbird zigzagged across the trail behind me, staying with me for a good minute before disappearing off into the forest. I could not believe my good fortune, that I was able to recreate one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite books. When I think about that moment now, I think also of Skutch’s yearning for some kind of deeper communication with Jimmy. I feel the same twitch of regret, that the mystery of communication could not be solved.

In all my birding, if I could choose just one bird to have spoken to, it would be the bicolored antbird that followed me through Skutch’s forest. There is so much I would’ve wanted to ask him. Was he a member of Jimmy’s line? What was it like living in Skutch’s forest? What was it like living in a tropical rainforest? What did he think of people?  Aren’t army ants kinda scary? What’s it like being a bird? How did he know to not be afraid of me? Would he like to walk with me again next morning?

But like Skutch, I was lucky just to have been able to enjoy that level of intimacy with a wild and free bird, even if only for the briefest moment. What birds would say to us will always remain a mystery. But what if just once, you could cross the divide? If the mystery of communication was solved for just one day, and you could have a conversation with any one individual bird you have known in your life, which would it be?

The following two tabs change content below.
Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre is a nature writer and a candidate for the Ph.D. in English Literature at West Virginia University with a special passion for the memoirs and essays of early Neotropical ornithologists. He likes his birding milestones to be palindromes, and is currently at 1001 birds.
  • Carolyn

    I would ask the first golden crowned kinglet I ever saw, why exactly he decided to fly directly into my face! He did this as I stood, transfixed by his neon orange mohawk, so I’m fairly certain this action was a threat! I would love to have known if this busy, frenetic little bird had followed the expansion trend of his species in the East, or if he would return to some secluded pine forest to breed. I bet he would be a fast talker!

    • Frank Izaguirre

      Carolyn, something tells me you’re absolutely right that golden-crowned kinglets would be fast talkers!

  • Elliott

    I would love to chat up the Northern Mockingbird who sleeps, eats, and sings in my front yard. Especially when waiting for the school bus on cold mornings!

American Birding Podcast
Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
If you like birding, we want to hear from you.
Read More »

Recent Comments




ABA's FREE Birder's Guide

If you live nearby, or are travelling in the area, come visit the ABA Headquarters in Delaware City.

Beginning this spring we will be having bird walks, heron watches and evening cruises, right from our front porch! Click here to view the full calender, and register for events >>

via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Open Mic: Rocky Mountain Encounter at Camp Colorado December 9, 2017 5:50
    From American Dippers to White-tailed Ptarmigan to new friends and new birding skills, a young birder shares her experience at 2017 Camp Colorado. […]
  • Open Mic: Endemics, Research, and Adventure on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula December 2, 2017 9:23
    As we flew through a gap in the lush, green mountains to land on a thin airstrip, I anticipated the birding and research I was about to experience on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, the world’s most bio-intense area. […]
  • The Warbler Guide Comes to Android: A Review November 26, 2017 3:08
    Many people would say we are currently in the golden age of bird books. As we learn more and more about birds, and that information becomes more and more accessible, a huge number of bird books have been published. We have whole books dedicated to molt, tricky identifications in the Western Palearctic, the birdlife of […]

Follow ABA on Twitter