7 May 2016

Reconnecting with Nature in Five Minutes

by Jan Thornhill
House sparrows love cities. (Wikipedia)
It’s May. Before my coffee is ready I let the dog out and sit for a couple of minutes on the early morning porch. I don’t have my glasses on, but I know I’m surrounded by birds, because they’re singing up a storm. The spring songs of the year-rounds — chickadees, mourning doves, blue jays, a woodpecker, distant crows — overlap with the new arrivals — robins, chipping sparrows, a phoebe flycatcher, and the first ovenbird, an early wood warbler. In a week or so, when spring migration goes berserk, on any given morning I should be able to count fifteen or more different kinds of birds within five minutes. In the 25 years since we built our house in the woods, I have seen or heard 121 species on our two acre property. And the house sparrow, so common in cities, is not one of them.

The ovenbird is a seldom seen, but often 
heard woodland warbler. (Louis Agassiz Fuertes)
I had the luxury of growing up spending my free time in fields and woods, environments that nurtured my love of nature. That kind of childhood is all too uncommon today. Now such a huge majority of kids are growing up in urban environments, under much closer supervision, that most have little contact with “natural” habitats. This loss of engagement with nature has dire implications: it is difficult to care about, and work to protect, something you do not know. 

But, wait! As unnatural and lifeless as cities might sometimes seem, they are simply a different sort of natural environment, one that human animals have created, environments that support a startling amount of wildlife.

Blue jays are just as comfortable in cities 
as they are in forests. (Wikipedia)
When I lived part time for a couple of years at my aunt’s house in Toronto, I counted 64 different kinds of birds in her tiny yard and in her trees, a house that was only a ten-minute drive from the CN Tower! At Queen and Bathurst I have seen a kettle of forty turkey vultures swirling in the sky. At Bloor and Yonge, I have looked up and seen a bald eagle soaring south, white head and tail glittering like sequins in the sun. And from a hospital room on University I’ve seen a peregrine falcon streaking by. The only one I’ve ever seen.

I saw a bald eagle heading for Lake Ontario, sailing
high down Yonge St. (Ryan McFarland)

And now it’s May and millions of birds are on the move. One of the wonders of migration season is that birds continue to fly to their summer (or winter) homes using the same flyways their ancestors took, regardless of what cities and towns humans have built in their paths. To see them, you just have to pay attention.

Sometimes you have to look up in the city — you
might see a flock of turkey vultures! (Wikipedia)
I know my birds by song, but before I learned their songs, even when I was a tiny child, I was perfectly capable of distinguishing one song from another. And so can you. In almost any Canadian city — or anywhere else, for that matter — if you go outside and sit quietly for a few minutes, you should be able to hear at least a couple of bird songs, perhaps the irritating chirp, chirp, chirp or house sparrows, or the soothing cooing of pigeons, or the harsh chatter of a magpie, or the gronk of a raven, or one of the multitude of sounds a starling can make. At this time of year, though, if you listen carefully, you may hear many more songs, songs that are less familiar. If you follow a song, you might see a bird you’ve never seen before.

The black-billed cuckoo is a gorgeous, common
bird in Calgary. (John James Audubon)
But you have to go outside. And you have to go outside without your music, without your phone, without your ipad. With nothing but your eyes and ears. Go out early tomorrow morning. Sit quietly with your ears open and your eyes peeled. Who knows what joyous songs you’ll hear? Who knows what fancy mating outfits you’ll see? Five minutes is all you need to connect to whatever your natural habit is.


Please read this important piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian: “If children lose contact with nature they won't fight for it”


Ursula Pflug said...

I love that Monbiot piece you cited.

Jan Thornhill said...

It should be required reading for every parent