Mohawk the Starling—Part 2

2. Breaking the Language Barrier and The Wisdom of Play

Mohawk the Starling basks in Carol Pettigrew’s almost round-the-clock care, even as Carol herself struggles with emphysema. Determined soul that she is, the oxygen tank she’s forced to drag around isn’t stopping her, even as the bills pile up. Donations these days just don’t seem to be keeping up with expenses. The hurt of four-plus years of the Great Recession is finally hitting home and charities everywhere are suffering. Her assistant Lenette is young and energetic and keeps working at the BEAKS shelter even when the money runs out. It’s a constant struggle for them to continue rescuing these birds.

BEAKS staffer Lenette gets the latest news from a baby crow named Juliet. Courtesy

Carol tells me she had quite the battle with naturalists in the early days. They told her she was foolish for rescuing birds; that they should be allowed to die in the wild and provide food for other animals. “I said to them, they are not dying in the wild. They’re dying from cats—our cats—from highways, from power lines, from windows. We have a responsibility to them.” It is we who have altered the environment to suit ourselves, she explains, and thereby created things that distort the normal mortality rates of birds and other animals. Hundreds of thousands of birds die every year simply from crashing into office tower windows. Many are disoriented by our electromagnetically saturated urban environments—birds navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field. Overlap that with the thousands of other signals we’re shooting around and no wonder they often can’t navigate properly anymore. Our fascination with wireless technology is creating another layer of pollution that is hazardous not just to birds, but to all life.

Silent Spring was a revolutionary book often credited with being a forerunner of the environmental movement. Courtesy

In Rachel Carson’s now legendary book Silent Spring, she mused on the strange horror of a landscape where no birds sang because it had been poisoned by pesticides. Already we have driven thousands of species of various kinds to extinction. And with climate change, we’ll drive many more to extinction. The savannahs of Africa once were black with herds of millions of animals. The same with the North American prairies. Now these herds are a tiny fraction of their historic size. As ecologist Allan Savory points out, this may in fact be driving the growth of deserts (desertification) as much as climate change. Contrary to accepted notions, all those animals pounding across the prairies didn’t destroy the soil, they broke it up so seeds could take root.

The Hopi injunction to reconnect with animals, birds and Nature generally is thus given added resonance. Of course, people who work with these creatures on a daily basis already know that. Carol Pettigrew has worked with bird rehabilitation in some form for 40 years now. She is a naturalist’s dream, just waiting for some canny biologist to pick her brains. Carol is quite aware of the risks of some birds ‘imprinting’ on their human caregivers, particularly if they are brought in as babies. She’s had a few birds ‘imprinted’ or bonded with her, including a crow named Muffin who has never left the facility and has become a devoted companion. This is not unusual with crows, according to John Marzluff’s research. “She became madly in love with me instantly and it was mutual,” says Carol. “I have to be careful with crows because they imprint so easily.” Mohawk the Starling, on the other hand, is an exception to his kind. “I’ve never seen starlings imprint like Mohawk has; it’s the first time in 40 years I’ve seen that.”

New studies on crows are reporting a level of intelligence previously unsuspected in these amazing birds. Courtesy

Ravens by contrast are far less likely to bond with humans. Yet Carol recalls getting to know a raven who eventually felt safe enough to land on her shoulder. It was from this raven she learned what she calls the ‘eye language’ many birds use. “First you close both eyes, then your right eye, then your left eye; it’s a trust exercise,” she explains. “When you do all three steps you can do anything with that bird.” Carol says flickers, red-tailed hawks, ravens, crows and eagles all respond to this ‘language.’ She once proved it to a sceptical naturalist who brought her a red-tailed hawk that was soon—literally—eating out of her hand.

New discoveries in the study of birds, particularly corvids—the crow and raven family—are showing that they often engage in play. As Marzluff explains in Gifts of the Crow, just a couple of decades ago the very notion was ridiculed by scientists. Unless it served some evolutionary function, a bird or animal would not waste energy on play. But then as we studied humans and got better at mapping the neural circuits in the brain, we realized that play activity in human children was indeed creating vital new neural pathways. Best of all, it fosters joy, which is far more than the sum of its chemical and neurological parts. Why not birds and animals too? “Many birds play,” explains Marzluff. “In a third of all orders of birds, voluntary, novel, immediately unnecessary, repeated, stress-free movements, interactions with objects, or games among individuals have been recorded.” Carol says in her experience it’s the female crows who are the most active and playful.

As my companion Anne is always reminding me, why could a bird not simply sing because it feels joy in the warmth of the spring sun? The myriad choirs of birdsong I hear in the spring bounding from the hillside make me believe she’s right. And might Mohawk the Starling indeed have been overjoyed to have someone to hear his story, even if I couldn’t understand it?

The point is, to be there, to listen, and offer what we can of ourselves. Please consider giving generously to BEAKS to support their important work by visiting

** NOTE FROM PART 1: Chester the Robin is another of BEAKS’ resident birds. When brought in to Carol 12 years ago, his wing was broken. Although his wingbone was set by a veterinarian, Chester was not able to recover the ability to fly. But he developed a unique ability instead—as a kind of trauma counsellor to other robins. When young robins come in—especially those like him who are unable to fly—they are often traumatized by having to remain on the floor. Chester interacts with them and soon their frantic cries diminish, helping them adjust to their new environment while they heal.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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