Learning to Listen

Recently, following minor throat surgery, I was prescribed a week of full vocal rest. In plain English, that meant complete silence: no shouting, no whispering, no speaking of any kind. For seven whole days.

It’ll come as no surprise to learn that I love to talk, so I was prepared for my silent stretch to be an almost insurmountable challenge. But it wasn’t. In fact, it was a revelation. I came out of the week remembering something I forget too often: How much joy can come from listening.

Listening…and trying to understand what you’re hearing. 

During the week, I took several solitary walks in Croton Point Park. More consciously than I ever had before, I focused on the sounds around me: the snow crunching under my feet, sheet ice clattering in Haverstraw Bay, and the wind whistling through the dry grasses on the hill. And the birds, of course, because even in this quiet winter season, the park was full of their announcements and warnings and conversations.

Listening, I knew that whenever they called or sang, they were always trying to communicate something. But could I learn what their messages meant?

Sometimes the meaning was clear. For example, that rusty-red Fox Sparrow singing its lovely song from a weedy patch was announcing, “Keep out!” That made sense since its winter territory was rich in seeds and other food items that would help it survive until spring.

The same with two other birds that perched up in plain view and yelled at me as I walked by: a Northern Mockingbird giving loud “chuck” sounds and a Gray Catbird its familiar nasal “Meow!” In both cases, the birds were guarding tangles of vines laden with Bittersweet and other berries—food these two birds rely on during the winter. Who wouldn’t defend a packed larder like that with a harsh call?

But not every message was as easy to decode. On one of my walks, during a thaw, I heard the raucous alarm calls of a group of Blue Jays. At first, I didn’t pay much attention, since jays are almost always noisy, often seemingly just for the fun of it. But when I did look, I saw something curious: a group of six or eight birds clustered around a large knothole about twenty feet up in an old oak tree, staring into it and shrieking like outraged infants.

This is known as mobbing behavior, and Blue Jays and other birds only practice it when they perceive a real threat. The tree cavity was sharply angled upward towards the sky, so I couldn’t see what was inside. But something definitely was, something that bothered the Blue Jays enough that when I finally left, they were still hurling abuse into the hole. “Stay away!” they were warning each other and any other bird in the area. “Danger lurks here!”

Given the size and angle of the hole and the birds’ behavior, my best guess was that the cause of all the ruckus was a snake. Snakes don’t fully hibernate during the winter. They brumate, a shallower sleep that allows them to rouse themselves on warmer days, emerge from their dens, and soak up some sun. Somehow this snake had caught the attention of the park’s Blue Jays, who were letting everyone within earshot know what they’d found.

Other times, the alarm had nothing to do with the calls I heard. A pair of Great Horned Owls raise their young in the park every year, laying their eggs in February. (Owl eggs can survive frigid temperatures and even being temporarily covered in snow!) Their hooting, alternating between lower and higher pitches, was a duet between the male and female of the resident pair.

Scientists think that these duets serve two purposes. One is to let any nearby owls know, “We’re here and we’re nesting, so keep out!” Also, Great Horned Owls mate for life, and by calling back and forth (sometimes while looking into each other’s eyes), the owls reaffirm their commitment to each other.

But figuring out what some birds were saying was no sure thing. Near the end of one walk, I was approaching Teller’s Point, the southernmost tip of the park, when I heard a series of high-pitched, twittering notes.

It’s strange: Although I’ve heard these odd calls many times, it always takes me a minute to figure out what’s making them. This time, all became clear as I watched an adult Bald Eagle, perched on a high branch and looking out over the steel-gray Hudson River, open its huge beak, throw its head back, and call again.

But what was this solitary eagle, its back to me, trying to express? For a few moments, I puzzled over various theories. But then I stopped and laughed at myself, realizing that understanding these mysterious sounds didn’t matter, not to the magnificent bird or to me, either. Whether the eagle was expressing joy or frustration or alarm, or simply liked hearing the sound of its own voice, was its own business, not mine.

That was another lesson I learned during my week of silence, another bit of knowledge I hope to keep with me now that I’m back in the speaking world: Not everything has to be analyzed and figured out. Sometimes it’s okay—more than okay, better—to just stand there, soak it all in, and enjoy.  

Copyright © 2024 by Joseph Wallace