How Birds Teach Communication Skills

Communication Skills with BirdsI grew up knowing birds could talk.

Whenever my mother dug up a lie I thought was safely buried in kryptonite, she’d say, lips smugly pursed, “A little birdie told me.”

Needless to say, my view of birds in those days ran more to the image of ratfink than to feathered friend. Later, though, the ancient wisdom of other cultures taught me how to listen differently, how to appreciate birdspeak.

And now, the birds have revealed yet another talent in their repertoire of communication skills. Their lesson unfolded a few days ago when my husband stopped me on my way through our sunroom.

“Don’t spray that tree with the hose,” he said, pointing through the French doors toward a dwarf pine in the courtyard garden.

I’ve lived with Fred, master of indirect communication, long enough to know he could be bouncing commands to himself off of me.

Besides, innocence was mine. I rarely touch a hose unless the house is on fire. And, as the whole neighborhood knows, it’s Fred who suffers withdrawal pangs when drought warnings curtail his beloved weekend escapades as Hoseman.

So I didn’t take the bait. I asked, “Why not?”

“They’re building a nest.” He pulled me closer to the window, and I saw a flicker of brown feathers.

“The male is the bigger one with the red breast,” he said. “The little drab brown one is the female.”

He looked at me pointedly, and I knew that he was continuing our argument of last night about whether to get new shutters put on the house. It was a simple dispute made complex by the nature of opposites. His basic philosophy claims “More is better.” Mine runs more to “When in doubt, leave it out.”

Continuing with his bird lore as a way of indirectly assessing my shutters IQ, Fred asked, “How come in nature it’s the male bird that’s always the beautiful one?”

In that moment, he looked to me every bit like a showy peacock with tail fully fanned. What I heard through the translation in my head was “What do you mean, you think we should just rip the two existing shutters off the house rather than add new ones to the bare windows?”

So I took the bait.

“Because the male is all ego and pride,” I shot back. “It’s the female who knows humility.”

“Oh? So what’s humility?”

“Have you ever experienced what it’s like to know you’re about to lay an egg, and there’s not a thing you can do about it?”

His eyes widened. “That sounds like humility, all right!”

He took a minute to collect his defense: “Then why do women paint themselves and wear those wild earrings?”

“So men can see them!” The words flew out of my mouth like crazed hummingbirds. “The male is so arrogant and stuck on himself that the female has to do something to get noticed. Meanwhile” (I was really on a roll) “she’s also out there laying all those eggs and keeping the world going around.”


“I never thought of it that way,” he said.

“Me either.” I felt a little singed by my own hot air. In a war of words, it always looks as if I win.

We watched the birds. The red-breasted one brought a twig to the waiting beak of the little brown one and flew off again for another. There was a grace to their quiet cooperation.

No arrogance in her humility. No pride in his beauty.

A peacefulness settled between us, and I realized the truth about the shutters. The truth is, I have little interest in and even less talent for house decor. Particularly the outsides of houses. I guess I thought women are supposed to be naturally good at that. But it’s Fred who is the home beautifier.

The red-breasted bird sailed into the tree with another offering for the nest. Fred and I leaned against each other, my shoulder nudging his in apology as we watched. Sometimes the little things are the toughest to tell the truth about.

“You’re right about the shutters,” I offered.

“Thank you,” he said. “And you’ve got a great way with words.”

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