The pine forest is anything but silent. Swarms of school-aged children flap their skinny arms as they run swooping around trees. They’re squawking, tweeting and trilling complex birdsongs. One dashes at me from behind a bush. “Who are you?” he hoots, owl-like.
“Katharine,” I stammer.
“No, not your human name, your made-up bird name,” he says. “I’m an American dipper.”
A group fluttering about in a circle shout, “We’re Bald Red-Tailed Owls.”
Another kid pops out from behind a tree. Dressed in black and scowling, he screams, “And I’m a Millennium Falcon.”
This is bird camp. A week of games, skits, nature hikes and sing-songs for 15 junior birders to enrich their appreciation and understanding of the feathered world. It’s early July and this is only the first summer camp of a series offered by nature-wizards Erin Nicolardi and Emily Payne, co-founders of Rivers to Ridges, a Whitehorse-based outdoor experiential learning program for young kids. They’re flanked by superstar co-instructors: Kester Reid, a tall Scotsman dressed like a park ranger with a vast resume that includes teaching and learning in the Amazon, and Matteo Friesen, a frisky, twinkle-eyed teacher from Sechelt, B.C.
Each child is part of a bird family with its own distinctive birdcall. “Too-woot, too-woot,” bellows one kid hiding behind a soapberry bush. “Chirp-a-chirp, Chirp-a-chirp,” screams another. All the while, the Millennium Falcon whooshes around. The four teachers sprint towards them, claws outstretched, playing the cats in this game of tag.
The game’s over and they form a seated circle on the soft pine needles. The children are still twitching and chattering. “If you can hear me, put your wings on your head,” Nicolardi commands. “Put your wings on your ears. Put your wings on your belly.” They do as they are told and stare up at her. “So how did that go?” she asks. “Did the birds in your family do anything to help each other out?”
The kids fidget and squirm. One squats and rocks back and forth on her rubber boots. Another is sitting cross-legged but flapping his knees. Like songbirds in the forest, it’s nearly impossible to catch one of them sitting still.
“I would try to listen for other birdcalls to hear if there was trouble nearby,” says one kid.
“We split up,” says another.
“Sometimes I would do this to the cat,” says a boy in the front, making a fart noise.
Reid leads the kids over to another, more open space in the forest. The children flock along behind him, clapping and singing as they march. “Birdsong, feather and bone, down to the river, bring us home,” the song is hypnotic, chant-like. “Wolf and raven in my soul, in my soul, huh.”
The kids feast on the typical lunch-box fare of granola bars, packaged cheeses and carrot sticks like ravens wolfing down food scraps outside a dumpster.
While they eat, the four instructors put on a performance for the students. It’s called Bird Language in Five Acts. “There are two scenes to each act,” says Reid in his Scottish accent. “The first we will see in bird language. In the second we’ll run through it again with English translation.” With Reid as the MC, the other three instructors take to the pine needle stage, acting out a variety of scenarios. The four grown adults peck the ground for food, flap imaginary wings, sing happy melodies, even tussle in a mate-and-territory battle. The kids are enthralled.
In the last act, the birds are flitting around the forest when they suddenly begin to chirp loudly in alarm. In the English translation, they shout, “Danger! Danger! Look out!” One bird, played by Payne, is distracted while the two other birds fall utterly silent. A cat, played by Friesen, leaps from the shadow and kills Payne the bird.
“What happens if one bird does not hear?” Reid asks.
“It dies,” the kids shout together.
“If you hear the forest go deadly silent where once there were birds singing and chirping, there is most definitely a
predator nearby,” warns Reid with a stern gaze.
The kids clearly aren’t just learning about birds, but how to be more observant in the forest—to see, feel, hear and smell what’s going on around them. And for one week, they get to see the world through beady unblinking eyes enough to connect with their own inner bird ways.
It’s already worked with me. After just one half-day at bird camp, I have become the Blue Jeans Heron, a long-legged bird that stands perfectly still for hours and just watches.