The Secret Knowledge of Birds

For years now from the front porch of my old Michigan farmhouse I have closely watched a variety of ordinary birds. I have concluded – and am here to tell you – that even the smallest of them possesses a profound and mysterious secret knowledge.

Every species of bird somehow seems to know exactly how to behave, each in its own peculiar way. Take, for example, the downy woodpecker. The downy is a small common woodpecker about six inches in length, with a black-and-white striated back, white breast, and stubby little beak. The one that lives at my house must be female, since I have not seen a red patch on the nape of its neck. It lives alone on my front porch, inside an almost perfectly round hole at the top of one of the hollow square wood columns under the roof, the furthest one toward the concrete steps and the dirt driveway. I don’t know whether the woodpecker made that hole – last summer that hole was inhabited by bats, which I would see trickling out at twilight – but I suspect it did, because last summer I saw the woodpecker, or an identical version of it, make the same almost perfectly round hole, about an inch and a quarter in diameter, in another square column at the back porch, tap-tap-tapping away at the old wood, as if rapping quietly on my back door. The bats must have departed from the hole in front, because at some point the woodpecker moved in. If I come out onto the porch in the morning, it emerges, hurriedly, perturbed, and flies away in its dipping, bobbing flight to a nearby pine tree, where it creeps up the branches, pecking at them periodically. Other times, however, for reasons unknown, the woodpecker remains in its hole; I can see its little head peeping out, watching me. I don’t believe it has a nest in there – I’ve never heard or seen any young woodpeckers – but I wouldn’t otherwise know; I have no idea what kind of noise, if any, a woodpecker makes, or where it nests, or what the nest looks like. I’ve also never seen that woodpecker with company.

The sparrows, by contrast, are uniformly social. I rarely see them alone. They’re small, about five inches, ubiquitous and move only in little groups or flocks; there must be a couple dozen of them. From my wooden chair on the porch, I see house sparrows, grey, brown, dingy white; white-crowned sparrows, marked by black and white stripes on the head; and song sparrows, with black streaks on the back and breast, sometimes singing their short sparrow song. Despite small differences, they look pretty much the same. In any event, they all seem to recognize each other as sparrows. Sparrows seem to be the subdivision or condominium dwellers of the bird world. They live together in a tall cedar tree next to the driveway in front, which I call the “high-rise,” and for which they seem to demonstrate a proprietary regard. I’ve never seen a bird other than a sparrow nest in the high-rise. In the spring, after brief fluttered couplings in a bush between the porch and the high-rise, the sparrows build and sit on their nests – small round ordinary nests, at least three or four, cheek by jowl, high up in the inner forks and crooks of the tree, from what I can see through the outer branches – until, presumably, their (to my eye) indistinguishable young fly out, and together they resume their front-yard foraging. Most of them stay in the high-rise through the winter.

The bluebirds at my house are as different as can be from the woodpecker and the sparrows. The woodpecker is solitary and idiosyncratic; the sparrows are gregarious and plain. The bluebird, by contrast, seems in all its movements to radiate a buoyant effortless joy. The appearance of the bluebird in spring is a happy omen. About seven inches in length, with bright blue wings and tail and a rusty-red breast, particularly on males, the eastern bluebird heads south in October or November, unless the winter is unseasonably warm, and returns in March or April, usually in groups of three or four. The first one I see often surprises me, an intense burst of bright color in the spare palette of early spring. On a gray April day, I hear a faint clawing outside the living room window and turn to see a brilliant blue and red male clinging to the screen, peering in, checking me out as I sit at my desk. Shortly thereafter I see several bluebirds in front of the house skirmishing with the sparrows for territory, diving and dodging playfully through the air, though it strikes me as only a game, since the bluebirds would never nest anywhere near the high-rise. I’ve seen bluebird nests before, in boxes on five- or six-foot posts at the edge of an open field, with an entrance hole the right size – big enough for a bluebird, but too small for a starling or the hand of a raccoon – with a nest inside constructed of tightly layered grass, fibers, feathers, and bits of thistle-down, or even fur or hair. But at my house I don’t know where the bluebirds nest, since I haven’t put out boxes, and in any event it’s not in view of my front porch.

Some birds are only occasional visitors. I’ll be on the porch and a chickadee will alight on a branch of one of the shrubby lilac or buckthorn trees in front of the ledge, only a few feet away from me. The chickadee is about four inches long, with a black cap and throat, gray back and dull white breast; to me, its head always looks a little too big for its body. Despite its diminutive size, the chickadee is fearless; it comes closer to me than any other bird. I’ve been tempted to hold out my wrist to see if the chickadee would land on it. The chickadee pops from branch to branch, ever closer, eyeing me curiously, steadily all the while. Satisfied, it darts off. In the distance I hear its cheery summer-harbinger song, a rising, then falling, “Dee, dee.”

Other times I’m visited by a house wren. A very small brown bird, perhaps four inches, with a stiff straight tail held high over its back, the wren is a tiny taut bundle of energy. It flits through the shrubby tree branches, jerky and frenetic, shooting sidelong looks. In German the wren is called Zaunkönig, or fence-king, for its vociferous defense of the fences it inhabits. This one, true to form, delivers me a thorough scolding.

Other birds are largely passers-by. In spring the catbird returns, a bold large bird, perhaps nine inches, dark gray with a black-streaked crown, usually alone or in a pair. I often hear the catbird before I see it; its mewing catlike calls from behind the house are unmistakable. This spring I first see the catbird in front, where it swoops up to perch on the very tip-top of the high-rise, as if surveying a newfound dominion. A couple of sparrows come bustling out. The catbird absconds.

Starlings come stumping along, dull brown-black, hunched over, heads bobbing forward, with an occasional squawk. They live in holes in the wood siding of the barn. In the starlings, I see few redeeming qualities. When nesting, they’ll push into any available opening. One spring a starling pushed its way into the transformer on the telephone pole in back of my house; in addition to electrocuting itself, it knocked my power out. 

Scruffy sharp-eyed crows congregate in the tall pine next to the house, raising a ruckus with their cawing cacophony; across the road, high over the fields, a solitary heron slowly beats its wings, long neck drawn in and spindly legs sticking straight out behind, and veers off, like a crabby old man, to avoid anyone it sees on the ground; while scattered bald-headed vultures float on the wind with splayed black wing-feathers, a silent spectral presence.

All these birds are members of the kingdom animalia, phylum chordata, class aves, which consists of perhaps 10,000 species scattered across all seven continents and characterized, among other things, by feathers, toothless beaks, and the laying of hard-shelled eggs. That much they have in common. And yet the birds I know are as different from each other as night and day. Why does a woodpecker never behave like a sparrow, or a starling like a bluebird, or a catbird like a wren? Never mind the crows and vultures. How does each one of them somehow know how its species is supposed to behave – what to eat; how to fly; whether, when and how to sing, or to build a nest; and whether, when and to where to migrate? The list is endless. Some behaviors could be learned, products of nurture rather than nature, but with others, it’s hard to imagine how. A songbird might conceivably learn to sing from imitating other songbirds, and a migratory bird might learn to migrate in its first autumn by simply following its kind. But how does a bird learn to build a nest?

One spring I watched a robin build a nest in a buckthorn in front of my porch. It worked methodically, gathering small twigs and grasses in multiple trips, weaving them together in a tri-form tree crotch six or seven feet off the ground into a small deep bowl, just large enough to conceal most of its body, in which it thereafter sat on its robin’s-egg-blue eggs, motionless, yellow beak slightly raised, peering out with one benign but watchful yellow-ringed eye. Its nest was more or less exactly like every robin’s nest I’d ever seen. How did the robin know to build its nest in the crotch of a tree, instead of inside a cavity like a woodpecker, or a woven hanging sack like an oriole? Six or seven feet off the ground instead of 15 or 20 like the sparrow? To use mostly twigs, instead of fiber and feathers like the bluebird, or mud like a barn swallow? To weave the twigs into a bowl-shape of just the right size? Building a nest was a construction technique, a feat of technology, but how could the robin have learned that techne? Certainly not from its mother, since the nest would have been built while that robin was still an unhatched egg. It seemed equally unlikely that the robin could have learned from later watching some other robin, particularly since, I assumed, there would have been no intervening spring during which this robin would have sat out its first breeding season. Complicating the picture further, as I later read online, was that it’s evidently the male who gathers the materials and the female who builds the nest. So if the robins could not have learned from some other robin, how did they know how to build, and in their assigned roles, to collaborate with each other?

The usual answer is “instinct.” Birds and other animals, we say, do all these things instinctively. But what is “instinct”? The English word derives from French instinct, Latin instinctus – the nominalized past participle of instinguere, from in- plus stinguere, ‘to prick or goad,’ meaning something that has been instigated, incited, impelled – and ultimately Proto-Indo-European *steig, ‘to stick, prick, pierce.’ But who or what is doing all that instigating, inciting, impelling, sticking, pricking and goading? What cause(s) stand behind these innumerable effects? “Instinct” does not say; the word merely describes effects and is conspicuously silent as to causes. 

More recent answers tend to be phrased in terms of electronics or genetics or software, that certain behaviors, or proclivities to or capacities for behavior, are “hardwired” or “coded” or “programmed” differently into different species’ genes. But these answers appear to suffer from the same defect as “instinct”: if behaviors are hardwired, coded or programmed, who or what does the hardwiring, coding or programming?

Evolutionary theory goes a step further. The theory as I understand it, simply put, is that over time, random genetic mutations occur, which – if advantageous for survival in the course of natural selection – wind up getting passed on to succeeding generations and become a regular recurring part of a species’ genome. Hardwiring, coding or programming thus happens, in whole or in part, at random, without any hardwirer, coder or programmer. 

But what is “random”? A typical dictionary entry defines “random” as “lacking a definite plan, purpose or pattern.” The history of the word is revealing. “Random” came into English from the Old French randon, “rush, disorder, force, impetuosity,” from Frankish *rant or some other Germanic source, from Proto-Germanic *randa, “a running,” also the root of Old High (and modern) German rennen, “to run,” and Old English rinnan, “to flow, to run.” The underlying sense in English would seem to be “to run at great speed,” almost “to careen.” A similar, though not identical, sense is evident in other modern European languages. “Random” translates into German as zufällig, “coincidental,” or willkürlich, “arbitrary”; French as aléatoire, “hazardous, uncertain,” or au hasard, “by chance, accident, hap”; and Italian as aleatoriocasuale or fortuito, “accidental, fortuitous, by chance.” Latin alea, the root of “aleatory,” was a word for “dice.” In modern European languages, “random” thus seems to mean purely “by chance.” Indeed, “chance” is a close synonym. English “chance,” in turn, derives from Latin cadere, “to fall,” in the form of its neuter plural participle, cadentia, “falling things” – again, a term for dice.

Older European languages had other words for “chance.” If we were speaking Latin, we might refer to fortuna; if ancient Greek, to tyche. But in addition to being ordinary words, Fortuna and Tyche were the names of divinities. Fortuna was the goddess of chance, luck and prosperity in ancient Rome; she may originally have been a goddess of fertility. The Romans often depicted her as blind. The ancient Greek historian Polybius (ca. 200-118 B.C.) in his Histories seems to have viewed Tyche, Fortuna’s Greek predecessor, as a form of Providence guiding events to bring the Roman republic to preeminence. Polybius was also critical, however, of the popular tendency to hold Tyche responsible for other phenomena – aside, perhaps, from exceptionally heavy rain and snow, destruction of crops by drought or frost, and outbreaks of plague – whose causes could be discovered by the human mind. Whether Polybius and other ancient writers had in mind tyche or Tyche, fortuna or Fortuna, is often difficult to say; modern translators struggle with the question of capitalization.

So it’s quite curious if you think about it. In our own time, as a matter of language, if nothing more, after 160 years of battles over evolution, after the monkey trials, the creationism debates, the epistemological wars and the ultimate triumph of scientific rationalism, we find that nonetheless, at the core of our evolutionary theory, a divinity remains – the same divinity playing the same role she played in the ancient world, for the same reason. We still attribute the causes of phenomena that we cannot explain to random chance. The achievement of evolutionary theory in this regard seems largely orthographic. Like the gods and goddesses who appear on the battlefields of the Iliad to assist or hinder the mortal players, or as critiqued more than 2,000 years ago in the Histories of Polybius, chance – or Chance, Fortuna, Tyche, call her what you will – today still runs, falls, indeed, careens blindly, as she always has, an inscrutable thrower of dice, through living genomes across the millennia, leaving mutations that may help or hurt the individuals of the species. In our thinking about the causes of things, little seems to have changed. In the terrain of language, we have yet to cross the border from poetry into science. Perhaps part of us has always inhabited, and always will inhabit, the realm of poetry. Note well: that border remains unmarked. 

Evolutionary theory, it must be said, goes a step further than previous explanations of animal behavior. Like “instinct,” “random” describes primarily effects rather than causes. But unlike its predecessors, “random” has abolished “cause” altogether. Random events cannot meaningfully be said to have a cause. They happen only because they happen; probability is simply what it is. If a divinity still lurks at the core of evolutionary theory, that divinity is now confined, conceptually speaking, to a very small black box. Inquiry as to the box’s contents is futile; the contents as such are not cognizable. One can no longer ask the question. Through a sleight of language, the divinity has been removed from view. Like other branches of science, evolutionary theory may explain the “how” of things, but it seems powerless to explain the “why.” The “why” remains ineffable. 

Words may open up, explicate and reveal; they may also cover over, obfuscate and hide. Epistemologically speaking, we seem to live, in curiously bird-like fashion, in a linguistic-conceptual nest of our own making, which shelters and closes us off from the raw uncertainties outside. Just as every hand-tool bears some relationship to the shape of my hand, the words I use to grasp the world are formed by the shape of my mind. Are we able, by means of science or otherwise, to penetrate, to push through and beyond the intertwined components of our construction of words – at least part of which appears to be ancient – and to fly from that mind-nest, to see, encounter and grasp, beyond the limits of language, the untold world outside? For that matter, how do we know how to build with words in the first place?

I don’t know. I’m not sure, figuratively speaking, that I’ve made it past my front porch. And if I had, I might not be able to explain it.

So why do birds behave the way they do? 

I still don’t know that either. Evolutionary theory provides little insight. From watching birds, however, I’ve concluded that they know exactly how to behave. And that what they know, and how they know it, remain a profound and enduring mystery – the secret knowledge of birds. I have no further explanation. 

In every bird I see from my front porch, however, in every ordinary woodpecker, sparrow, bluebird and countless others, in the smallest things in front of us every day, I see revealed, unceasingly, beyond the boundaries of language – if I can manage to do it without thoughts and words – the impetuous movements of a wondrous and awesome, if now nameless, divinity.

Birds are only the beginning.

David Guenther

David Guenther is a clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School. He is a graduate of Kenyon College (AB, History, 1984, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), Duke University (MA, Germanic Languages and Literature, 1997) and the University of Michigan Law School (JD, 1999, magna cum laude). He studied classical philology at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg in Würzburg, Germany (1995–1996). He recently published his first book, The Art Dealer’s Apprentice: Behind the Scenes of the New York Art World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2024), and his work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Magazine, New Art Examiner, SAGE Magazine, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and a number of law reviews and bar journals.