This time of year, when bird migration and mating have slowed down the visible activity of the birds in your backyard, you may be wondering what’s next. Bridget Butler, aka Bird Diva, wants you to put down your binoculars and listen. “Find that sweet spot in your yard, get quiet, and close your eyes.“ she says. Hers is not your typical approach to bird watching: early morning walks with other birders, identification books, and checklists. But she knows that by following her Slow Birding techniques, you will deepen your connection with the birds all around you.
Slow Birding with Butler involves sitting quietly and simply noticing. It is akin to meditation, which requires daily practice in order to settle the mind. Butler offers classes and private consultations and teaches online courses. Every first Friday of the month, she offers a virtual Slow Birding session for groups to practice together. She starts with a poem and a prompt, then everyone sits quietly to notice, and discussion follows. Binoculars are allowed, yet not for identification but for watching.
I’ve attended three of Butler’s courses, and we talked last week about Slow Birding. Here are five takeaways to change how you watch birds, for a deeper connection.
1. Bird Counts: No more.
Most birders love to count and identify birds, and birders on the whole are competitive with their tally. Butler, who has been a naturalist for over 20 years, thinks about birding in a different way. She’s worked for Audubon and other birding institutions, so her approach requires unlearning what she has been taught about what we do as bird watchers. “The goal is not so much on identifying species as it is to sit and be still. You don’t have to chase birds in order to see them. “
2. Stop, Sit and Listen.
Identifying your soundscape and the layers of the song gives you a better sense of the birds in your area. When you sit still, you notice what they are doing, not just what they are communicating. A slow birding session with Butler involves opening your senses to the full experience. “ I am not going to point at things and name them for you.” She says. “I am going to ask you questions about what you are noticing and hearing, and draw you in with your senses.”
3. Female Birds and Birders
“Female bird song is different and the details of the plumage are equally remarkable to the male,” says Butler, who admits that she often draws her eye to the brighter colors and louder declarative song of the males. Yet slow birding has changed her perspective and what she notices. “Audubon was started by women, as an activist group of women who objected to dead birds on hats, yet has mostly focused on the identification and learning through bird song. “
In Butler’s talk “The Her-story of Birding & Ornithology” she explores the founding mothers of ornithology, quoting from her favorite Victorian women authors and their books.
“ Women think about birds differently, with less of an emphasis on identification and more on how they are interacting. There is a growing awareness that the female bird songs and behavior have largely been overlooked.”
4. Listen to the True Soundscapes: Not recordings.
Teaching people how to identify birds by song often involves listening to bird recordings. Yet those are isolated sound bites from the actual layering of actual sounds that are in nature all the time. “Bird songs are only part of the soundscape because there is so much more going on.” Says Butler. “Building a slow birding practice involves listening to all sounds that we listen to every day and barely notice anymore. At first notice, you will notice a layering of sounds that may include leaf blowers and traffic in the distance mixed in with bird song. “
5. Unlearn. Begin Again.
We often start birding or gardening, with identification and knowledge. But the longer you spend time actively doing each, you find that not knowing is part of the process. It builds curiosity that leads to discovering something new on you’re own.
“It is very different to go out in the garden or birding with the mindset that you are visiting friends, versus identifying, accumulating, and listing.” Says Butler.
This may be uncomfortable for those who like to identify and know what they are seeing or hearing. Yet this is the first step in shifting the lens and deepening your awareness to understanding the birds and plants.
It is learning that is sparked not through a book or a class that can be so much more joyful. By practicing slow birding and even slow gardening, we can be more open to an appreciation for both without knowing why.
From my garden to yours.
p.s. Attention garden clubs! Bridget is a wonderful speaker and would make a great addition to your upcoming program. (You’ll love her bird calls, too.)