Poetry Friday: Animal Conversations

Jul 12, 2019

Field biologists often spend a lot of time waiting...waiting for a certain type of fish to surface, or a certain type of bird to appear. It's that quiet time in the wilderness that biologist and Earth Notes writer Liz Blaker loves best. That's when she tunes-in to the sounds of the forest and the conversations of animals. In this week's Poetry Friday segment, Liz shares an original poem called Stillness, inspired by the hours she spent waiting for queen bees to arrive at nectar-filled flowers. 

Credit Google Images

LB: Scientists have studied communication among animals and have found that in some types of animals, there are specific calls or sounds for certain types of situations, like a raptor on the wing. Some scientists have found that when there’s a raptor on the wing, these very small forest birds will make a very high-pitched sort of “tseet, tseet” call. And that means raptor on the wing. And other species of birds and animals recognize that and react to it. They’ll take up the call, the alarm call will move through the forest, and in this one study they found that it moved at about 200 miles an hour.

So, once you can tune-in to that, you can sort of take part in knowing what those conversations are about. And one thing I’ve learned just from being quiet in the forest is that birds have different voices for talking to each other. Like the jays; we think of them as scolding all the time, but that’s only because we’re disturbing them. But when they’re talking to each other, they have these very quiet little conversations, sort of whispered conversations. It’s very gentle-seeming. Very different than the jays we see.

If you sit quietly long enough, the alarm settles down. When you’re not a threat, they know you’re there, but you’re not doing anything, so they quit being concerned with you, and then you can hear the normal sounds of the forest.

This poem is called Stillness:

In stillness the self falls away

And there is only the universe


Air currents move through tall pines

Stroking their needles into song

Carrying balsam fragrance and sunshine


Goldbanner blossoms cluster in a pool of sunlight

A grasshopper crouches on a lichen-crusted boulder

And surveys the world with eyes wise and zany


A bumble bee queen in orange and yellow spring finery

Pushes down the keel of a Goldbanner flower with her hindmost legs

and inserts her proboscis


Nuthatches walk the tree trunks upside-down,

Probing the bark fissures with intelligent beaks

A spider moves into darker shadow as a nuthatch beak enters its lair


A Steller’s jay sees all this with bright black eyes,

Topknot raising and lowering

in pantomimed commentary


In the distance another jay scolds

And soon swoops in to join its companion in the branches

Where they shout warnings together


The Chickadees join in,

Abandoning their high pure songs

To declare their names in alarm


There are walkers in the woods,

A man and a woman with a dog

Their vibrating conversation rippling through the forest


The walkers pass by

The dog pauses to sniff bunch grass

In the branches the jays scold and spiral upwards


The jays follow the walkers

Swooping and gliding above

The human conversation is a bubble encapsulating the people


Farther away other jays join in

Other Chickadees take up the alarm calls

In the distance Red-breasted Nuthatches sound their nasal trumpets


The dog trots after the walkers

The wave of alarm moves off into the distance and the two jays return

Settling down to preen and talk to each other in whisper songs.


A squirrel takes up a pinecone and nips off a scale

To extract the seed hidden beneath

wrapped in papery wings


I take up myself and walk towards home

Poetry Friday is produced by KNAU's Gillian Ferris. If you have an idea for a segment, drop her an email at Gillian. Ferris@nau.edu.