Five things I have learnt from birdwatching that helps me in my relationships

When I met Malcolm (my husband) 11 years ago, I was very much a beginner birder. I could recognize the difference between an ostrich and an eagle, a sparrow and an owl, but any finer detail was lost on me. I had the added disadvantage of knowing most of the birds’ Afrikaans names, and as we all know, this does not necessarily translate – you can get quite tangled up between sugarbirds and sunbirds when you are thinking “suikerbekkie”.

#1 – Pay attention to detail

If there is one thing I learnt on my journey to be a better birder, it is to pay attention to detail. Sometimes the difference is in the colour of the legs and feet (egrets) or the woolly “stockings” they wear (eagles) or the wideness of the eye mask (weavers). Not to mention when they start changing into breeding colours. You really have to keep your wits about you and notice – what they were, what they might become, and see if you can fit that speckled strange bird with patches of mottled brown and red into a red bishop.

You need to do the same in your relationships. Pay attention to detail – notice when someone seems upset, seems happy – and ask about that mood. Being noticed is something we all crave, and is the beginning of feeling cared for.

#2 – Don’t be afraid to NOT know

If you cannot identify the bird, say so. Sometimes you can guess at the family of bird – sparrow perhaps? And then go on to identify the grey-headed sparrow. Only by admitting that you do NOT know, can you open yourself to learning something new – and with birds, there is always something new. Travel to a different region, and suddenly you see a number of new birds – and an old favourite. You might know a little bee-eater because you have seen them before, but go to the far north of the country, and southern carmine bee-eaters will blow you away.

If you do not understand why someone close to you is feeling upset, you will never know, and never get to know them better. We all sometimes assume that someone else’s mood is a result of our interaction with them, where 80% of the time it is something completely outside of our relationship.

You get home and your partner is upset? Ask why, and stop assuming to know that it is because of you have or have not done.

Do not be afraid to not know. Care enough to ask.

#3 – Have a mentor / some really good books

I was fortunate in that Malcolm is a reasonable (in his opinion, particularly good in mine) birder. It helps to be able to ask what you should be looking out for. It helps to have a library of birding books at your disposal – and a mentor that can point you to the best book to use.

At the same time, you need to also learn to not always ask. To think and analyse for yourself, and try and get that identification by yourself. Why? You will never learn how to identify a new bird by yourself if you are too lazy to think / look up yourself, and one day, you will be on your own when you see a new bird. Then you slip back to beginner status if you cannot at least use the book by yourself.

The same with your relationships. The two biggest challenges we face in life, we get zero guidance on – being part of a serious life partnership, and having children. You are thrown into the deep end that day you meet your significant other, and that day they place the first child in your arms. Best you read up before that happens, during that phase, and in retrospect when things go wrong.

Better yet, have a mentor you can talk to and use to puzzle out what went wrong.

#4 – Don’t give up

This is especially important, for part time birders like me. We go on a trip to a game reserve, and I am into the birding with a vengeance. Two weeks later, back in the urban jungle with its endless rush hour commutes, and birds are the last thing on my mind. Come the next holiday or trip, and I feel like I have forgotten everything I have ever known about birds.

Now, ten years later, some knowledge has been repeated so often, I am finally starting to retain it. Eagles wear woolen booties, hawks do not. Or is that the other way round? I will have to go look in the book – see point 3 above.

In your relationships, you are bound to hit potholes. Even sometimes dirt roads with potholes. Or unchartered territory with no roads. Had an enormous fight, for the first time during your relationship, in public? Ending in a very loud screaming match? Want to hide under the table and hibernate for the next 50 years, rather than face that audience again? Not recognizing yourself or your partner in those two screaming madmen? Do not give up. It is in that phase, after that big fight, where you learn the most.

About yourself. About your partner. About your trigger points and ways of dealing with conflict.

#5 – Practice, practice, practice

If you are really keen on getting better, whether at relationships or birdwatching, you need to put the time into it. Practice, for those mythical ten thousand hours. Bring birding into your everyday life. Spending some time in traffic? Count how many mynahs you see at each traffic light. Notice the sparrows and wagtails often living in big stores and shopping malls. Notice the birdlife in your garden, on the golf course fairways, on the dam you pass on your walk. They share our lives; you just have to notice.

Do you practice your relationships? Yes, if you did not marry your very first love. Do you learn from your past? Debatable, if you do not make a concerted effort to do so. At the end of a relationship, pause. Examine what you learnt from it, both in what you like and what you do not like, what you can tolerate and what is non-negotiable. Apply this when you choose next time.

Have a teenager in your life? Wipe out everything you think you know about being a teenager, and go back to the previous four points in this article. This is a new species for you. Observe, read, learn. Try to find that child you loved, in the glimpses between the jaded “grown-up” and the moody teenager you are faced with right now. Children also molt, like birds. Change into breeding colours, so to speak.

As do grownups. First child due soon – how will your life change? Add a couple of dogs and a second baby, and suddenly you become your parents. You speak their words – those exact same ones that used to irritate you beyond measure.

Your partner is at retirement age, while you are still plugging away at a job – think some things will change in your life? Practice, observe, learn.

Only by adjusting will you be successful, in relationships and in life. ff

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