Acclaimed bird linguist at weekend ‘Bird Chautauqua’

Jon Young makes first appearance at annual event

Among the stars in the specialized world of birding is a 53-year-old father of six—a New Jersey native who learned some of the greatest lessons of his life from listening to what birds have to teach humans.

“Birds can tell you lots of things,” said Jon Young, now a Santa Cruz resident who is making his first appearance this coming weekend at the 12th Annual Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua in Lee Vining.

“When I was about 10 years old, a neighbor took me under his wing, no pun intended, and we’d walk the hills near the Pine Barrens, and he became a great teacher of mine, for about seven years.”

From those lessons, through his academic career at Rutgers University and beyond, Young has studied tracking skills, scout skills, and nature mentoring.

Some of what he knows he will share as the Chautauqua’s keynote lecturer on Friday night at the Mono Basin Visitors Center. But the really great stuff will happen Sunday morning when he will lead participants in “Bird Language and the Influence on Human Nature” in an outdoor “experiential workshop.”

Young’s appearance is among 54 presenters in 87 events at the wildly popular three-day event, which in spite of no advertising whatever routinely sells out—200 registrants of a total of 286 registered on the first day registrations were accepted.

It usually is the first big event of the Eastern Sierra festival season and its devotees have been relentless word-of-mouth promoters, according to Dave Marquart, the ranger at the Mono Basin’s California State Tufa Reserve who, with the Mono Lake Committee’s Bartshe Miller and Lisa Cutting, produces the event.

“There are just a lot of people who really love the Mono Basin,” Marquart said. “It’s like their spiritual home.”

Young, in a telephone interview, said he’s heard about the event for some years but has not attended, nor has he visited the Mono Basin at all.

“For the longest time,” he said, “people have been asking me why I haven’t gone, and they say, ‘You have to go!’ So I’ve been pulled into it.”

What Young will find is a unique bird environment in North America where the ecosystems of the western Great Basin collide dramatically with the alpine ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada, all within the context of the riparian habitats of highly saline waters of Mono Lake and the surrounding basin.

The area draws a wild variety of birds, but is easily walkable on dozens of short hikes over the course of the weekend.

Young’s appearance seems natural.

An author and master story-teller, he recently wrote “What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World.” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012).

In the relatively slim volume, he explains a cultural mentoring model that blends traditional wisdom from around the world with a broad array of tools for connecting with nature, among them learning bird languages and honing holistic wildlife tracking skills.

He is the founder of OWLink Media, the 8 Shields Institute in Santa Cruz, and the Shikari Tracking Guild, and has written, co-written, appeared in, or produced numerous books, audio, and multimedia projects.

On his website,, he writes,

“For as long as humans have interacted closely with the land and animals, the behavior of the birds has been interpreted—in varying degrees of accuracy and for many different purposes. Common patterns of behavior exist in birds around the world. These patterns can indicate to observers the whereabouts of unseen people, predators, and other animals on the landscape.

“Remnants of this ancient knowledge also exist in patches within the industrialized culture that has spread across the world, isolated into the realm of hunters and quiet observers of the forest and field.”