A Short Philosophy of Birds

Philippe J. DuBois and Elise Rousseau, translated by Jennifer Higgins
New York: HarperCollins, 2019; 157 pp., paper, $19.99.

The authors of this book write:

Like Mongolians, birds don’t travel with a compass, GPS, or a map, because they intuitively possess all these internally. Take the bar-tailed godwit. This little wader (also known as a “limicole” or mud-dwelling bird) is a close relative of the curlew and spends its life in coastal marshes or estuaries. In spring, the godwit migrates to make its nest in the Arctic. By tracking one of these godwits with a satellite tag, researchers have discovered that they are capable of covering the distance between Alaska and New Zealand—over 7000 miles—in one go. That equates to flying for a whole week at forty-five miles per hour. Consider, too, that the godwit weighs just 250 grams. What’s more, during this non-stop flight, the godwit only allows one half of its brain to fall asleep at a time—allowing it to fly continuously during its sleep. Imagine if we humans could sleep this way.

The authors of this book ask: whatever happened to our sense of direction? Wherever we go, whether it be a vacation or a deeper spiritual journey, we depend on some version of an external GPS. We don’t trust our internal instincts, as the godwits do.

Philippe J. Dubois is an ornithologist and a writer who has traveled all over the world watching birds. He is an author of several books on climate change and biodiversity. Elise Rousseau is a conservationist and author of several books on nature and animals. Their book provides twenty-two profound lessons on qualities we can learn from birds.

Tukaram, a famous Marathi saint, sang that our closest friends are in the nature around us. This elegant book reminded me of that teaching from my childhood. The authors inspire us to take a step back and reconnect with the nature and listen to the “tiny philosophers of the sky.”

The first chapter is titled “Embracing Our Vulnerability.” For a species of duck, the molting period is a period of vulnerability. When new plumage is replacing the old, these ducks are temporarily unable to fly. “Eclipse plumage” is a phrase used to describe “a liminal twilight that occurs while the bird waits for the essential feathers that it has to shed to regrow.”

The lesson is profound. Why don’t we humans do the same and cultivate the patience needed to “eclipse” ourselves whenever we face vulnerable situations? After great losses, we feel the pressure to move on. We rarely take the time to be with our sadness, gather our strength in our own version of eclipse plumage, and reemerge.

Many years ago, a goose family laid eggs in the planter on my deck. The mother goose would sit on them, hatching, for days, and the male goose would stay put on the deck, protecting his family. I couldn’t go on my deck because he would sit in a position to attack. I didn’t understand this fully till I read Dubois’s and Trousseau’s book: it is the geese’s commitment to their family.

The authors tell us about many such qualities. The hen takes a dust bath (live life to the fullest); the eagle glides high in the air, looking for its prey (true courage); doves fall in love (tenderness); a bowerbird builds his nest, beautifully decorating it in bright colors (adding beauty to the world); a robin brawls and fights (audacity in defending oneself); a corvid uses tree branches to reach hard-to-access foods (using one’s intelligence—forget the expression birdbrain!); and a bird loosed from its cage uses its freedom to roam while staying near the safety of the cage (dealing with fear).

In their conclusion, Dubois and Rousseau say that in “our changing world, threatened by climate change and destruction of natural habitats, many bird species are disappearing.” How do we adapt? How do we survive and, more importantly, how do we help our dear friends, the bird species, to survive? The authors say, “The day we decide to protect birds will be the day we decide to protect ourselves.”

This was an inspiring book. Lately a red-crested bird has been coming and sitting on a shrub that I can see from my reading chair. He sits there and watches me read. I wonder if he has something to tell me. I intend to ask the next time I see him.

Dhananjay Joshi


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