What is Bird Language, and Why Should I Go to the Workshop at SHIFT?

At this year’s SHIFT, Dan Gardoqui and Atiya Wells will lead a Bird Language workshop from 2-4 p.m. on October 18 at the Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, located adjacent to The National Elk Refuge at 532 North Cache in Jackson.

The workshop, which is being presented in conjunction with the Teton Raptor Center, is free for SHIFT All-Festival Pass holders and $50 for all others. Tickets may be purchased here.

At the start of the workshop, Kari Cieszkiewicz, Environmental Education Specialist for the National Elk Refuge, will provide a brief overview of the National Wildlife Refuge System, as well as highlight the National Elk Refuge and the significant role it plays in providing bird habitat. 

We caught up with Dan and Atiya recently and asked them to tell us about Bird Language and the workshop they will be presenting at SHIFT.


Dan Gardoqui leads the Bird Language Workshop at The Visitors Center at SHIFT in 2018. This year, Dan will be joined by Atiya Wells for a reprisal of the popular event.

Background: Nature-rich interventions are immersive techniques that connect people with nature so that they can bring it more robustly into their lives. At last year’s SHIFT, Dan, a registered Maine Guide, Certified Wildlife Tracker, and science and audio editor for What the Robin Knows, guided participants through a workshop that offered a glimpse of the world of Bird Language, including tips on how to “re-awaken” a hardwired skill set of awareness that helped humans evolve.

Birds are the sentries of the natural world, and our key to understanding a language we all used to understand. The calls, postures, and behaviors of birds convey great information to those who understand their patterns, because they serve as an early warning system that ensures peace and safety.

The attentive, trained observer can deduce through Bird Language the location of predators and other forces on the landscape. Bird Language is also useful in our human relationships, as it helps us detect and resolve energies such as tension, conflict and misunderstanding.

This year, Dan is returning to lead the Bird Language workshop with Atiya, a pediatric nurse and nature educator from Baltimore City whose love for nature began after college, during a spontaneous hike with her husband in Western Maryland.

Atiya Wells

As a pediatric nurse caring for children unable to go outside, Atiya was determined to ensure her children spent time outdoors as much as possible. She has since dedicated her free time to fostering nature connections in urban environments and creating equitable access to nature.

The founder of Backyard Basecamp—an organization geared toward connecting Baltimore’s residents to wildlife in the city—Atiya also serves as the Executive Director of BLISS Meadows, an innovative social justice project that creates equitable access to green space in her community, and preserves 10 acres of land in order to connect Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to African-American agricultural history and culture.

Atiya and Dan will be representing 2019 SHIFT Award Official Selection 8 Shields, an organization that re-awakens the attributes of connection in people, and in turn help heal the widespread disconnect from nature and concomitant loss of connective cultures worldwide. Over the past 30 years, 8 Shields has developed training pathways that support mentors and leaders to empower individuals and entire communities to become more connected to nature. Their model incorporates traditional mentoring and deep nature connection practices, fully supported through humans’ neurological, emotional, and physical connection to the natural world.


Dan: At last year’s Bird Language workshop, we had a large, engaged, diverse group of participants who enjoyed soaking up the warm sunshine, settling into their own senses and learning that birds are constantly calling us to attention—our most valuable resource. A lot of this year’s workshop will be similar. Last year, though, I was on my own, and the crowd kept rolling in. One of the upgrades this year will be having Atiya co-facilitate. This will help ensure the whole group gets to practice bird language. We want to make sure participants can do a quiet sit, do a debrief and then share stories.

Atiya: Often, we talk about bird language in terms of conservation. Personally, doing bird language makes me think about how I walk in the world and the disturbances I create as I walk through it.

Dan: Bird language connects us to individual species, landscapes and natural processes, which is about conservation and stewardship. But it’s also about our personal attention. It serves as a mirror, reflecting back what is happening around us.

Atiya: When I had kids, I wanted to make sure they got outside. Watching my two kids engaging outdoors and not being annoyed with each other the way they are when they’re in the house and not looking to me to entertain them when they’re inside—that was an eye-opener for me.

That epiphany has been a driving force for me here in Baltimore. Part of the reason I got into the outdoors was because there are people who can’t get outside. I educate teachers about how to bring nature into their curriculums and have been leading the charge in the diversity realm because as I took more classes I realized there aren’t as many black and brown folks in nature.

Dan: Bird language connects us to nearby nature. It speaks to values around stewardship, but also around people.

Atiya: You can listen for bird language anywhere and anytime. You don’t have to be sitting outside; you can be on your porch, or walking. This morning I was driving and saw bird language: a flock of starlings shot across a street thirty feet in front of me, and I looked again and saw a hawk — a redtail — coming behind them, flying low into a group of trees in a meadow. Behind the hawk was a mockingbird. The hawk was maybe 10-15 feet above people at a bus stop, and nobody even turned their heads.

Dan: That story encapsulates so much. There’s so much going on around us all the time that we are not tuned into at all.

Atiya: The street I live on is a very busy street, too—it’s a thoroughfare, a six-lane street in the middle of Baltimore. You can see this stuff happening wherever you are.

Dan: It’s not just that Atiya is super connected. She’s just tuning into her senses. You can do this anywhere. Bird language is about connection. That’s why it’s important for health and wellbeing: we know isolation is what makes us sick. Connection brings us health.

Atiya: I work as a nurse, so my interests are grounded in health care, but recently I’ve been merging that interest with my interest in nature. I mostly deal with folks who don’t have a lot of nature knowledge. It can be overwhelming if you think of all the names of things you’re supposed to know. Bird language is intuitive. You don’t need to know the names of the birds to engage with bird language and be part of the conversation that’s happening.

For me, when you become aware of bird language, you begin to understand a lot of the disturbance we create as people, intentionally and unintentionally. It really makes you aware of the disruptions you cause, and you can take those lessons to make you aware of how you are in a room, in a meeting, your body posture, what’s in your brain, what’s on your face. It teaches you the self-awareness that a lot of people don’t take the time to get—our “inner tracking” and our awareness of who and how we are.

Dan: My favorite question to ask a curious human being is, “What is happening here, and what is it telling me?” Whether it’s birds shooting across a bus stop or walking into a meeting where people aren’t making eye contact, bird language doesn’t just have to be about nature.

Bird language raises our level of awareness and improves our situational awareness. There are so many applications, to both the natural and human worlds.

Bird language is about paying attention.






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