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what birds can teach us about ourselves

It’s no secret that I’m a bird person.

I have been fascinated with birds since I was young. I sit and watch them in parks and parking lots. I doodle them in the margins of my notebooks and seek them out in pet stores. A year ago today, I brought home my cockatiel Jasper, which was one of the single greatest decisions I have ever made.

Jasper-the-cockatiel
Hi, I’m Jasper. I like cuddles and whistling at 2 a.m. when Amanda is trying to sleep.

When people ask me, “Are you a dog person or a cat person?” I smile and say, “I’m a bird person!” and they usually give me a weird look and excuse themselves from the conversations shortly thereafter.

A question I get fairly often is, “Why birds? Why do you like them so much?”

Of course, there are the obvious reasons: they’re sweet and vocal, they’re made of 98 percent fluff, and (in Jasper’s case) they are very cuddly. But the true reason I love birds so much is because they are very intentional creatures. They move with a surety and sense of purpose unrivaled by any other creature I’ve witnessed.

For as much as they flap and flutter, birds waste very little energy. They move in short staccato bursts, each little hop and cock of the head bringing them closer to their goal. They are efficient but ever-curious; their bright, intelligent eyes are always seeking, always noticing.

Have you ever watched a bird fly? It’s innate, inborn; they have a sense of what those wings can do before they’re old enough to use them. They step into the air and expect flight. They trust their wings to carry them even if they don’t know where they’re going yet.

What if that were us? How different would our lives be if we trusted our instincts and our gifts enough to step into an unknown future? What if we moved through our lives with intention instead of fear?

But that effortless flight doesn’t come without struggle. Two years ago, I was standing on the deck of my aunt and uncle’s house, enjoying a warm summer afternoon, when I saw a female cardinal dart through the backyard. Two smaller cardinals struggled after her, and I could tell from their sub-par flight skills and the baby fluff still peeking out from between their feathers that they were fledglings, just learning to fly.

I ran into the backyard and followed the three cardinals around the side of the house. Mom was an expert, flitting between trees and circling rooftops, her landings practiced and controlled. Her babies, on the other hand, were far less skilled; they flew uneven routes and crash-landed in trees, calling out to her in concern. One of them ran into the side of the house, flapping as he fell; when he hit the ground, he shook himself and took off again.

Two years later, the image of those fledgling cardinals learning to fly is still burned into my mind. The instinct to fly is only an instinct; it doesn’t become a skill, a tool, until it’s practiced. In the same way, our passions and gifts don’t become useful until we hone them into something substantial. And to do that takes courage, and the understanding that failure is a necessary—and sometimes painful—part of success.

My friend and I coined the term “burst of intention” nearly five years ago as a way to describe the purposeful movements of birds—and, in some cases, the purposeful movement of people. It’s since become the name of this blog as a reminder that we must have the courage to pursue our best life.

So the next time you see a bird while you’re out and about, I recommend you watch it. Watch the pigeons strut around the park; watch the blue jays splash around in a sun-drenched puddle; watch a parrot cock its head and look at you from a low-hanging tree branch. Watch how they move with a burst of intention. How their hollow bones give them the strength to fly.

Do you recognize yourself in them?

“Just as a bird that’s born with wings must fly or die of longing, so too must we find the thing that gives us life.” — Elizabeth Koch

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