Bird Language when the Cattle Drive

Pitchfork Ranch, Meeteetsee, WY. Photo Credit: Nature Conservancy.

I should explain that I’m writing this post on a tin pie-dish balanced on my knees. It’s the second night of the big terminology round-up here at Rancho de 1-800-Translate, where we are sitting around the campfire telling translation stories. OK, basically it was just me. I’ve been speechifying on the matter of the most beautiful language in the world, what some call “bird language, ” which is the natural language of gesture, sound and movement shared by all creatures in forest and field.

But I didn’t have a chance to finish up this story at the last campfire, on account of everyone somehow fell asleep in the middle, including myself.

As I was saying, bird language is not just spoken by birds, although that’s usually what we hear. Mammals tend to be a silent bunch, but they will chime in too, if circumstances are right. It can get down-right noisy if you’ve got enough animals of the right sort mixing it up, which is just the sort of thing that is happening all the time to cowboys and cowgirls home on the range.

So let’s get the horse in the trailer and head up to Meeteetsee, Wyoming. We are going to move some cattle with Joe Thompson and some Pitchfork Ranch cowboys high up on the Greybull. This is one of the wildest spots in America, last natural home of the black-footed ferret, which once ranged wherever the Buffalo once roamed, covering a continent, once.

Here, now is an indigo dawn, Big Sky version. A few cowboys on top of a few horses and a dog leave camp. The horse prick up their ears at the sight of the cattle, and the cowboys push at the great beast between their legs, murmuring to their mounts like lovers, urging them on. But that’s what the horses want too. They love to run cattle. But it’s nothing to the enthusiasm of that little dog. I can’t remember his name now, but I can see him  go, running and barking in fine wide loops to Joe’s calls. What a team!

Pity the cattle, who must bear the brunt of the conversation between cowpoke, cow dog and cow pony. Rising dust is proof of effective communication as the cattle begin to move. The cattle lowing in protest, the bleat of calves, as they gather and flee, torn between fear and herd-love as the cowboys push them on.

As the cattle move, the rest of the range moves with them, birds stab bugs, rabbits start, deer spook, and the antelope staring on from far away. All these feedback loops of posture and attention rippling out to every interested creature, the common language of the artist on high.

Domestication has a way of forcing that bird language conversation. Being on horseback in general is better for listening in, since local animals are less likely to flee for their lives at the four-hooved gait of a horse than they would at the deadly bipedal tramp of our own species. You’ve got to be sneaky if you want to listen in to bird language au naturel, since in the wild, conversation is usually focused on such private matters as sex and death.

Birdwatchers and hunters both know to be very quiet and still if they want to listen in or participate in such intimate conversation. Early mornings, cold stands, and thermoses of coffee required.

We’ll pack that along for next time. Gramp has agreed to take you up to Holt’s Ledge, near the abandoned fields of Tinkhamtown, New Hampshire, late season, 1949. Dress warm.

Here’s the immortal Eddy Arnold doing bird language the cowboy way in “Cattle Call.” What a yodeler!

5 Responses to “Bird Language when the Cattle Drive”

  1. Jennifer says:

    There really is something quite special about the hum of the wild, I’m a hunter and I’ve taken friends out with me who just don’t appreciate it, they say it’s just silence but it isn’t.

  2. Alan says:

    Great article and that picture is just beautiful as well.

  3. Deborah says:

    I’ve never really thought about a herd of cattle making noise, as anything other than a bunch of noise. Food for thought I suppose.

  4. Kim Swanson says:

    I went out to a dude ranch and did one of those cattle drives, I certainly never thought about it in such poetic terms, but it certainly did have a magical quality to it.