How to Name a Bird

—For J. Drew Lanham


Don’t say it. Definitely never it, but instead always who, as in that citrus-bright song throating from the branch—not what is that, but who might that be?


If you want, say he or she, but if you’re not sure, hold fast to the space the right word can create. Instead, use that genderqueer they—a soft, bending pronoun that’s not so hard to make agreeable to the tongue once you follow not the rules you’ve been taught but the one that helps you see. 


For instance, say, I see them, just to the left of that old bit of chain-link—oh, hello, big lungs in the little body we call “wren”—nice to meet you.


Even better, stay a while. Stay neck-crick steady, bear witness to the work it takes to make a sound you once dismissed as effortless. This is no Muzak made easy, made to be taken for granted and dissolve. No. Watch their small body tense and flex, see the throat-pumping muscle required to belt such determination into the world. 


Stay longer. Stay so long it hardly makes sense. Stay so long joggers slow to ask if everything’s okay. Stay until one kid stops to look, curious if you’ve found something magic. Say yes, because you have. 


Put away the guidebook, close the apps, at least for now. Naming a being is tricky business, fraught with the farce of all those men slapping their own names on every living thing they could. Besides, once we have a name for a thing, we risk deceiving ourselves into believing we’ve seen all there is to see and look no more. Sometimes, to name you must unname, to see you must unsee, must undo what’s been done. 


And please don’t say a common this or a common that, because how very uncommon this one is—there’s not one other anywhere close to this very one, their ticking flip of a tail tattered, a feathered lever tapping out the code of herehere, herehere, right here


If warmth ambers the base of your throat, a glow that fills you like that liquid rush does the wings of a newly hatched cicada, recognize it for what it is—awe—which is just the beginning of what you need to know. 


And because you’re human, after all, let language try. Speak aloud to the bird as if you could be understood. Tell them, I’ll stay as long as you’ll have me listen to all you might have to say. The bird might even answer, but accept they’re probably not talking back to you.  


Because here’s the thing: attention is a kind of prayer. This isn’t about you but the you that exists in other beings, and when you realize that, name the bird for what they are. Say, I am here for thee. 

Nickole Brown is the author of Sister and Fanny Says. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she periodically volunteers at several different animal sanctuaries. She writes about these animals, resisting the kind of pastorals that made her (and many of the working-class folks from the Kentucky that raised her) feel shut out of nature. To Those Who Were Our First Gods won the Rattle Chapbook Prize, and her essay in poems, The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press. She teaches every summer as part of the Sewanee School of Letters MFA program and directs the Hellbender Gathering of Poets, an annual environmental poetry festival set to take place for the first time in Black Mountain, North Carolina, in October 2025.