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Bird Medicine

“I want to sing like birds sing, not worrying who listens or what they think.”

To the indigenous cultures of the world, such as the indigenous Quechua our students studied with this season in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador, native plant and animal species are treated as our “grandmothers” and “grandfathers”; they teach us age-old ways of living. Birds in particular, have always been seen as essential messengers. Humans and birds had fundamental interactions for many millennia.

Devon O. '23 and Isabella F. '21 in traditional ceremonial costumes of indigenous Quechua of Ecuador - September 2019

The ancients learned to listen to birds and to all forms of life in ways that were so essential for survival that they were considered sacred. From the indigenous, we learned that disconnection from these sounds and natural forces meant death. Listening provided meaning, life, and inspiration. The capacity to hear and understand beyond-human language became essential to human nature. Hearing all that nature has to tell us became the heart of human art, creation, and celebration. Are we listening? 

This September, the national bird population study came out. We learned that over the past half-century North America has lost more than a quarter of its entire bird population. Around 3 billion birds, gone [1]. Some are extinct. This was horrifying and overwhelming news, so grave I sat on it a while wondering if our students could even handle it. What have we done! Experts attribute causes for the loss of birds to include primarily habitat degradation, urbanization and the use of toxic pesticides.

Birds we grew up with: sparrows, warblers, blackbirds and finches have diminished. Larks, with their fabled songs. My childhood favorite bird, the red-winged blackbird—why do I hardly ever see them around? More than a third of the shorebird population has been lost. "We saw this tremendous net loss across the entire bird community," said Ken Rosenberg, an applied conservation scientist at the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. "By our estimates, it's a 30% loss in the total number of breeding birds." [2].

What can The Grauer School do now? Environmental Science teacher Nick Scacco immediately contacted the San Diego Parks and Recreation department and they recommended [3] that we:

  • Maintain our maritime chaparral, just as we are doing
  • Provide water sources near the shrubs
  • Plant/maintain SD native trees and shrubs, as we have always done


A snowy egret from our neighbor, the San Elijo Lagoon, visits The Grauer School's campus on a summer day - July 2019

Around 40% of Grauer is native, protected maritime chaparral and coastal sage that we look after. We get plenty of avian visitors, like the snowy egret that made our campus home last summer. And with our location adjacent to the San Elijo lagoon, a major stop along the pacific flyway, we have a great chance to host seasonal visitors. So we only need more water. With the outdoor fund that parents made possible at last year’s gala, we have purchased and installed two high quality bird baths by our habitat. And last year, school parent Julia S. (Nicole, 2020) completely rebuilt our garden pond, fish and all. We’ve hired an owl specialist to re-build our owl boxes and make our habitat attractive to local owls. We hope more birds will love our land.

“In today’s age of ecological crisis, we again find ourselves in a situation where attentive listening is required for a mutual thriving, even survival,” wrote David Haskell recently in Emergence Magazine [4]. Bird sounds offer an opportunity to rediscover our ancient connection. 

Will our children have the capacity to even hear, much less understand the many sounds of birds? Can our graduates be considered educated if they can gain little meaning from the sounds of nature? Will we ever live in the balance of nature again?

7th Grade Grauer History students planting authentic herbs from Medieval times - October 10, 2019

The Grauer School is not going to restore the 1.5 billion lost birds—what we can do as a school is to attempt to live and learn more in concert with nature. The smallness of what we can do as a single school sometimes feels inconsequential against overwhelming forces, but we have made up our minds to right our own practices in our own, small community—we will make a difference one small action at a time. And now, as I am writing this, Coach Trevor comes running into my office with a gigantic smile, “Hey, come here quick, out on the field there’s a whole covey of quail!”[5] That smile, that energy, that’s the bird medicine.

We examine the intrinsic goodness of our practices however small, we keep studying how to live better in the balance of nature, and we make reasonable efforts to do right as teachers of our children. We can help our students come of age with a better grasp of how to live sustainably on planet Earth. We can teach our students to listen and learn from “grandmother” and “grandfather.”


[1] Nearly 3 Billion Birds Gone, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, September 2019.

[2] North America Has Lost 3 Billion Birds, Scientists Say, NPR, September 19, 2019.

[3] Askparks.Lue@sdcounty.ca.gov

[4] Five Practices for Listening to the Language of Birds, David G. Haskell, Emergence Magazine.

[5] This is probably the family of quail that alumni dad Vann Parker, father of Bennett (Class of 2019) transplanted into our habitat corridor last year.

Dr. Grauer loves to hear from his readers. Please click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!

Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Devon O. '23 and Isabella F. '22 in traditional ceremonial costumes of indigenous Quechua of Ecuador - September 2019

An egret visits The Grauer School's deserted campus on a summer day - July 2019

7th Grade Grauer History students planting authentic herbs from Medieval times - October 10, 2019

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Dr. Grauer's Column: Archive of Past Columns

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The Grauer School's Class of 2020 graduated on June 5, 2020. Dr. Grauer's column this week features the text of his powerful keynote address that he delivered at the school's 29th annual graduation ceremony.

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Dr. Grauer's Column - Our Honor Code

Since students aren't under the direct supervision of their teachers during this unprecedented time of quarantine and social distancing, many schools including The Grauer School are revisiting the importance of their honor codes.

Dr. Grauer's Column - My Cause

Dr. Grauer takes a look forward to what school will look like in the coming years, based on lessons learned from the pandemic and changes to education that should be continued for current and future students.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Intrinsic Motivation

The Grauer School's weekly assemblies on Tuesdays are a special part of the school's community, and they begin with a message from Dr. Stuart Grauer. In this week's message, Dr. Grauer asked the students to think about what makes them intrinsically motivated to learn.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Quality Pho…

After learning this week of the passing of a friend, Dr. Grauer revisits times before the quarantine, to tell the story of a "survivor" who has some qualities we want to hang on to in these times.