Lately I’ve noticed an increased pattern of people taking a social media break. Why?
Don’t we want to be connected? To hear the news? Well. I do.
But I don’t just want to connect with people. I don’t just want news of the election or the latest celebrity deaths. I want news of my place, news of the land. It’s a felt news rooted in observation and interaction.
We may hear a lot about how humans are feeling disconnected, dissatisfied, emotionally unwell. Perhaps you can relate—I can, too. I have a practice that helps support me, though—I’ve set the goal of trying to spot at least one urban raptor every day.
It’s not about “power animals”. It’s not about absorbing some mystical “hawk medicine”. And it’s certainly not about projecting my ideas of mystical powers onto birds who don’t really give a shit about this stuff.
It’s just about participating in the life of a place.
Many of us have assigned our experiences with animals, especially majestic animals, to the realm of the magical. And there may be a certain healing power in myths which call upon the natural world to tell us things. But going out and observing the world around us is deep food for the mind, just the most basic, practical and ancient interaction I know of.
So how can we use this practice to address disengagement?
Wellness, especially mental wellness, is not just the absence of active illness. It’s a feeling of connection, a sense of belonging. It’s being grounded, knowing where we are in the world. Historically, when humans wanted to punish someone, we’ve banished them. Taken them out of this belonging, out of this connection.
We have always looked to our surroundings for messages and clues, literally reading our landscape, even before words, to tell us whether or not we were safe. What’s going on? Where are we? Who else is here? What time is it? Do we need to wear a beaver fur? Are we near water? (This used to be extremely vital information)
What’s the altitude? How far into the distance can we see? What’s the deal with prey here?
Birdwatching was part of this process.
What are the birds doing? Stocking up? Acting nervous? Birds and their behavior are a natural prediction system, an original, natural app. Want to know if there is a hawk around? Find some pigeons and watch how they act.
It has now become a hobby often thought of as best for dorky older people with knee socks and too much free time, but maybe we are ready to reclaim this as a super-badass accessible urban wellness practice.
Birdwatching is a game-any foraging behavior is, really. The natural rewards system gives us a nice, juicy ping every time we spot a Peregrine Falcon, a Maitake mushroom or a Giant Land Snail—whatever it is that we’ve chosen to “hunt” for. This ping is part of how we build our mental health. The process can be participatory and fun, connecting us to our community or solitary and meditative, giving us the space we need to recharge.
It’s like receiving a text, but from the Universe—although arguably texts from humans are also “from the Universe”. But anyway it’s like an ancestral booty call from deep within your neurology that supports a sense of bonding with our surroundings. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
And it’s just fun!
Fun that can motivate us to get off our asses and go outside, to feel the elements, driving curiosity to explore and to wonder about things. It creates interactions. Looking at birds is also a great lesson about inhabiting space-watching how they use things in our built environment, challenging our ideas of what these things are “for”.
To me they symbolize a casual rebellion against our acceptance of single-use structures, performing an Avian Parkour on our streetlamps and exit signs, eating a Pigeon atop our places of worship and scanning the harbor from electrical poles and bridges. Urban raptors are a bit of an F you to our architectural plans, to our perceptions, even to our opinions of gravity.
They’re looking at anything, and regardless of its intended (by humans) use they’re making it their own.
Maybe I’m getting a little too romantic now, but I like to think that their perching on whatever the heck they want is a tiny message of resistance to domestication, a message that not all beings are going to relate to this object or situation with the same preconceptions.
We can learn from them. Maybe we’ll get curious about the food chain, about our own neuroscience, about anatomy and ecology, about animal’s experience of mapping and territories, about observation and patience.
Urban raptors also address our human binary ideas about city and country, and who belongs where. Land is just land, and some animals don’t worry about population density—even preferring prey-rich environments full of dumpsters and Pigeon perches. Cities are stimulating, and some birds like that. Environmentally, we think of rural areas as “clean” and “pure” and cities as “dirty”, but this is not necesarrily true and reflects some of our human biases and our misunderstanding of risk.
Rural areas can be full of hazards, from oil spills to power plants, from planes spraying pesticides to hunters and other large predators. Cities do have dangers, but they also have laws which restrict certain environmental pollutants and may have less competition for prey.
It’s exciting for me to share this practice that can give us so much joy for such little work. It’s not about possessing anything, it’s not about owning things or shopping. It’s just about scanning the landscape. It’s about feeding a part of our brain which is hungry for input. It’s a little reminder: If they can make it here, so can I. And it’s just about going out and noticing, getting to know your place and building a habit of looking around. It sounds so basic that it can’t possibly be as great as I’ve said, but I encourage you to just go find out for yourself. Get a bird book if you want to, get a pair of binoculars if you’re really fancy, but all you really need is yourself and the sky.