Birds of a Lesser Feather

“What do we know about this bird? You might think not much, it’s just a bird.” Pam, The Office

Birdwatching is an activity that brings a lot of its own natural mindfulness — requiring silence, concentration, and appreciation of what is happening in the moment. It is an activity loaded with small achievements that exist for their own sake, without the need for external validation.

At the same time, accomplished, or even beginning birdwatchers are likely to let a lot go unnoticed. What is commonplace and regular easily gets taken for granted.

Pigeons, for instance, while derided as pests and spreaders of disease, are actually a highly successful species, learning how to live in close proximity to mankind. Their homing abilities differentiate them from other mammals, and their coo is soft and dovelike.

Or we can look at similarly common corvids: crows, ravens, magpies, and rooks. These overlooked birds are among the most intelligent winged species, with primate-like problem-solving abilities, which can recognize individual human faces.

I participate in a kind of low-rent bird watching. Enjoying sighting a gull glide over the river, a flock of pigeons fly away as one from tree to tree, or a crow amble over to me looking for an edible handout.

Such brief interactions offer great opportunities for mindfulness. As an exercise, simply watch a pigeon or crow: birds we have constructed so many stories around in our minds, but watch them without prejudice, without adding associations. Can we still experience the pigeon as a beautiful creature, as much a part of nature and entitled to life as, for instance, an Ural Owl or Ivory-billed Woodpecker? Can we see the crow as rare, and not devalue it because it lives on the fringes — if not in the midst of — human society? Can we still find wonder in these creatures, and experience them anew?

And if we can divest ourselves of stories when it comes to commonplace birds, can we not also begin to do the same with the people in our lives? Those we have come to see as pests, revisited with a fresh perspective, or find the beauty in a face we routinely experience as uninteresting (even if it’s our own)?

For more mindfulness exercises and techniques, look here.


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