David M. White and Susan M. Guyette
O Books 2010; 194 pp., $16.95 (cloth)
Review by Andrea Miller
friend told me that if I went to a certain park across the bridge, I
would see black-capped chickadees, and if I cupped some seeds in my
hands while softly singing chick-a-dee-dee-dee,
then they would perch on my fingers. These instructions sounded like a
witch’s spell, complete with incantations; the promised outcome sounded
like a Franciscan legend. All very enchanting. So my husband, Adán, and I
bought ten pounds of birdseed and drove across the bridge.
stuff of magic and miracles, however, was not forthcoming. We followed
paths lined with spruce and birch, but it didn’t seem to matter which
one we took; we saw nothing but crows, squirrels, and people walking
“Which way do you want to go now?” Adán asked.
“I don’t know.” The birdseed was heavy in my backpack.
He chose left. After walking a few feet, we came to a very narrow path between two clusters of saplings.
“Listen!” said Adán.
I couldn’t tell whether it was an insect chirping its wings or a birdcall. I just knew it didn’t sound like chick-a-dee-dee-dee
as I was singing it. We slipped between the saplings, and found
ourselves in a clearing. I scooped seeds into my palm and held them out
to invisible birds.
Invisible until I saw one flitting from branch to branch.
it.” I whispered to Adán. It was tiny, with its distinctive black cap
and bib, its white and buff belly, and its head that, though little,
seemed a size too big. I sang for the chickadee, and it came—wrapped its
feet around my finger and took a seed. Then it darted off and another
chickadee touched down briefly. Both birds took one more seed each and
that was all; they flew away like two hooded fairies.
“Birding can be a spiritual practice,” say Susan M. Guyette and her late husband, David M. White in their new book, Zen Birding. “Spirituality is about being aware of and participating in the connectedness between sentient beings.”
close observation, we come to understand on a gut level how little
separates us and other creatures. Birds, like humans, look for mates,
have families, feed themselves and their young, strive to stay out of
danger. Birds, like humans, suffer. They get sick, grow old, and die.
Realizing our essential sameness has the potential to make us more
compassionate. We realize how our actions affect birds and their
habitats, and we choose to be better stewards of the earth.
meditation, birding asks us to be still, to be quiet, to listen. And it
allows our awareness to grow. We can become aware of ourselves—of
ourselves watching—and we can develop a sense of gratitude for our
physical body, for our senses.
“Consider your eyes,” says Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Fragrant Palm Leaves.
can we take something as wonderful as our eyes for granted? Yet we do.
We don’t look deeply at these wonders. We ignore them, and, as a result,
we lose them. It’s as though our eyes don’t exist. Only when we are
struck blind do we realize how precious our eyes were, and then it’s too
late. A blind person who regains her sight understands the preciousness
of her eyes. She has the capacity to live happily right here on earth.
The world of form and color is a miracle that offers blissful joys every
a miracle—that’s how the chickadees’ appearance felt to me. But most
long-term birders in Nova Scotia wouldn’t describe contact with Poecile atricapillus in
that way. Chickadees are common here, so common that a wing-weary
birder might call them “junk birds.” As Guyette and White point out,
birders frequently become consumed by their lists. They count up the
number of bird species they see in different ways. They have life lists,
state lists, yearly, monthly, and daily lists. And, over time, what
begins to count is not actually seeing a bird but having seen a bird, and common birds are not worth a second look.
those who don’t inhabit the birding world, extreme birders, also known
as “listers,” are perplexing, ridiculous even. Why aren’t they noticing
the other aspects of nature’s beauty that are right in front of them—the
curious pink mushrooms, the yellow leaf falling, the mackerel sky? Why
are they traveling so far and trudging so doggedly through snow, swamps,
and deserts just to get a neck cramp and a checkmark?
are good questions, but they turn a blind eye to the fact that there
are a lot of other people—people who have no interest in birds—who are
listers or collectors of some kind and, moreover, that their ambitions
are equally inane. They make a list of all the books they read, or buy a
T-shirt from each Hard Rock Cafe they visit. They compete to get into
the Guinness Book of World Records.
They collect coins, brand names, electronics, hockey cards, lovers, or
good grades. Indeed, maybe this impulse to achieve or collect is not
something that affects many people, but rather most people. I know I’m no exception.
listing mentality has long manifested in travel and food. In high
school, just after my first trip to Europe, I got a blank world map and
began filling in the countries I’d been to with pink and purple and
green—conquering them with colored pencils. As for food, if there is a
fruit I haven’t tasted, I’m hungry for it.
to solidify the self through accomplishments or material goods is a
natural impulse in our uncertain, impermanent world. But it doesn’t
help. It doesn’t make life perfect; it doesn’t make us immortal; it
doesn’t help us find wisdom. In fact, achieving and gaining can cause
new kinds of suffering; our responsibilities and our worries can be
Much of Zen Birding
is a warning to people who love birds: Don’t let that love turn into
nothing more than a list, especially as an attempt to solidify the self.
Knowing my own tendencies, I’m listening carefully to this warning, for
after just six months of low-key birding I can feel the draw to novelty
and checkmarks. There’s a world of interesting birds out there that I
have never seen—and I would like to.
husband searched the net for the world’s best singing bird and he
stumbled upon a clip on YouTube from a BBC documentary showing
Australia’s superb lyrebird. Mouse-colored and with long, strong
dinosaurian talons, this is not a pretty creature, except maybe its
tail, which fans out almost like a peacock’s. But the lyrebird has the
ability to mimic the individual songs of other birds, as well as the
chatter of flocks and the sounds of mammals, including humans and the
things of their making: musical instruments, explosions, and machinery.
In that video, I saw the lyrebird belt out the laughing song of a
kookaburra, plus the sounds of a camera clicking, a car alarm howling,
and a chainsaw grinding through wood.
avian wonders that I’ve recently seen in high definition and in books
include the magnificent frigate bird, which flies over tropical waters,
swooping in to steal fish from the beaks of other birds. Frigate birds
have forked tails and are predominantly black, though their scapular
feathers have a purple sheen and the males sport scarlet throats that
inflate like balloons during the breeding season. Another curiosity is
South America’s hoatzin, with its unfeathered blue face and red eyes. If
a chick is in danger, it will fling itself from its nest, and then use
little claws on its wing digits to haul itself back. Then there are the
greater honeyguides of sub-Saharan Africa, who favor the delicacies of
beehives: wax and eggs and larvae. Occupied hives, however, can be
difficult for these birds to crack open on their own, so they sometimes
chatter to get the attention of a honey-hungry human, baboon, or ratel
and lead them to a hive. The common tribal tradition is to leave a
sticky gift of comb for the honeyguide, because, it is said,
otherwise—next time—the bird will lead them to danger.
honeyguide, the hoatzin, the frigate bird, the lyrebird—there is
nothing wrong with having a list with exotics like these on it, White
and Guyette say, but take a good look at why you have this list and why
it’s important to you. “Sincere introspection may reveal that
aspirations for a big list are grounded in selfishness or egotism, both
of which are barriers to true enjoyment of the undertaking.” Such
reflection can make it possible to “possess the list,” instead of being
possessed by it.
borrow an expression from the Zen tradition, seasoned birders would do
well to pick their binoculars up with “beginner’s mind,” that is, to be
without preconceptions, to be eager and full of wonder. As Shunryu
Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
in the expert’s mind there are few.” It is not possible for advanced
birders to see exotic species every time they go birding, but they can
see their region’s common birds with fresh eyes. As a new birder, I
can—in a similar vein—cultivate more appreciation for what is. I can
turn off the TV and fantasies, and concentrate on the birds that are
possible to see right here in the present moment.
of them are pretty incredible. Take the cedar waxwing, which
occasionally consumes too many fermented berries and falls down drunk
when it tries to fly. A couple of days after I saw a cedar waxwing for
the first time, I got on the phone with a friend and encouraged her to
“You saw that bird?” she asked when a photo appeared on her screen. She was as surprised as I’d been: This
exotically beautiful creature—with a black mask and yellow belly that
seems to glow pale and velveteen—is a common bird here? It has been
flying over me all my life, without me noticing?
Then there are the ubiquitous crows. That day in the park, looking for chickadees, my husband and I just walked past them. In Zen Birding,
however, White and Guyette remind readers that there is something
beyond our preconceived notions of these birds too—something that shines
a perfect iridescent black.
1420, Ikkyu, a celebrated Zen master, poet, and troublemaker, was
meditating in a boat on Lake Biwa when he heard a crow cawing. That was
the sound that woke him up, bringing him to satori, an experience of enlightenment. Ikkyu wrote:
For ten years my mind was cluttered with passion and anger.
Even at this moment, I still possess rage and violent emotions.
Yet in the instant that crow laughed, a rakan rose up out of ordinary dust.
In this morning’s sunshine, an illumined face sings.
and his world—even after enlightenment—were unchanged. But Ikkyu didn’t
see it that way. With fresh eyes, magic and miracles are everyday.
Andrea Miller is a deputy editor of the Shambhala Sun and a member of the Nova Scotia Bird Society.