July 5, 2013

Observe a Bird, Learn Discernment. ~ Tom Walsh

Running by the Killdeer Bird.

This year has been our first spring and early summer in southern Idaho, a desert land that’s often very volcanic and very stark. It is a land which has its own life to it, life that’s defined by farmland and ranches and the Snake River winding the length of the state from east to west.

I’ve done a lot of running and biking here so far, and in the process I’ve learned a lot from and about the local wildlife.

Southern Idaho is teaming with deer, antelope, elk, quail, snakes, pelicans, coyote, and many other beautiful creatures adding to the richness of the state. The animal that has caused me to think about myself and my life more than any other has been the Killdeer, a beautiful bird which nests on the ground and is thus forced to rely on unique strategies to try to protect its nest.

Those strategies are what get me thinking.

Because I run and bike, I often find myself in areas where not many people go, and where Killdeer tend to be. It’s extremely easy to spot nesting Killdeer because they want you to see them. You see, that is how they protect their eggs and their young—by allowing you to see them, so you will chase them, and in the process move yourself far away from their nest.

When I come close to a nest, the first thing I hear is a series of sharp, shrill cries. They want my attention, and they’ve gotten it. Then they will fly a very short way ahead of you, continuing to shriek and land on the ground, scurrying away until you get too close, then they’ll fly a bit further and land once more, making themselves a tempting target for anything that wants a quick meal.

It’s a dance that can go on for a couple of hundred yards—fly, land, scurry, fly, land—all to the sound of their piercing cries. Often both the male and the female will take part in it, trying to lead you away from their nest.

And they don’t stop there. If I get too close to a nest, the Killdeer will come much closer to me and pretend to be injured, dragging a wing on the ground to make themselves seem to be a much easier meal. They’ll flop around on the ground until the intruder either chases them away or moves away from the nest.

It’s a fascinating spectacle to watch.

And whenever they do this to me, I keep telling them, “Go back to your nest—I’m no threat!” They don’t listen to me, but I keep telling them this anyway. I start to see a bit of myself in them, the part of me that sees what I perceive as a threat to my well-being and overreacts in an effort to keep myself or my loved ones “safe”.

I recognize when I watch them that in my life I’ve spent an awful lot of time and energy trying to divert disasters, disasters which never would have happened no matter what I did— i.e. failed tests I did fine on, conflicts with people which never materialized, problems on the job I thought were coming and never did. And I see I’ve been a lot like the Killdeer, trying to keep myself or my loved ones from being hurt by something that in truth was no threat at all.

Discernment is very often referred to as a spiritual gift, and I believe this is true.

Life throws a lot at us, sometimes very quickly and in great quantity, and it’s very important we learn how to discern between what seems to be a threat and what truly is a threat, between who is a true friend and who seems to be a friend, between what we truly want and what we’ve convinced ourselves we want, between what we think we need and what we truly need.

The Killdeer, for all of their effort and willingness to offer themselves as a target, aren’t able to recognize the difference between a perceived threat and a true threat; I have to admit that I’m very often like them, unable to see differences which may be perfectly clear to other people.

So why is this important to me?

Because while I’m riding or running by, and the mother and father are both escorting me away from their nest, for that brief span of time their nest is left completely exposed, without any sort of defense at all, on the ground and very vulnerable. Because the Killdeer aren’t able to see I present no threat. They leave their eggs or offspring on their own, defenseless, and I would feel terrible if I were to find out some animal got a chance to rob the nest and kill the young just because I happened to be riding by on my bike.

And how many times have I left someone else vulnerable while I’ve spent valuable time preparing for a disaster that never happened, or fighting against something that in the end turned out to be a false alarm, or trying to divert a threat that wasn’t ever actually a threat at all?

Have I neglected a relationship while I’ve focused on a project for work or school, a project which did not truly need all the time I put into it? Have I left important work unattended while I spent more time than necessary dealing with family issues? Have I left my students on their own because I’ve been focused on taking care of something for an administrator — something that wasn’t nearly as important as I thought it was?

Life is full of things that seem to be more important, more drastic, or more threatening than they truly are.

I keep working on discernment. I want to get really good at it so that I don’t waste time that could be enjoyed more, or put to better use. I don’t want my fear instinct to kick in and dictate my actions if there’s no need for it to do so.

If there’s a true threat, then I’ll be grateful for the instinct, but I feel it is important I learn to discern so I can hold on to my peace of mind and spirit even when things appear to be threats to my well-being.

I have to admire the Killdeer’s willingness to put itself out there as an enticing target in order to protect its young. It is an ideal I truly aspire to—and when I’m able to practice discernment while I’m putting myself out there to deal with a threat, I’ll be able to see when such an action is truly called for and when I can just sit back and watch the threat ride on by because it never had any intention of messing with me or my nest in the first place.


Tom Walsh is a student of life and a teacher of high school.  When he’s not working with his students to help them learn to express themselves well, he’s working on his 14-year-old website.

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Assistant Ed: Dana Pauzauskie/Ed: Bryonie


{Photo: Matt Bango via Pinterest}

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