Zugunruhe: When the caged bird sings, we must listen.

There are many indicators on the land which can signify the transition from one season into another. In the most general sense, warmer and longer days where the kookaburras call on the easterly winds, as the evening star hovers above the south-west horizon before descending into the darkness can indicate the warmer months of summer. Dew drops clinging tightly to the long grass, as the light beams dance and jolt to the sounds of the magpie larks in the morning signals the arrival of autumn. The Kurrawongs sing-in the wintertime where frost covers the ground and the bark peels from the gum trees, until the seven sisters return to clothe the Country with wildflowers and the sounds of native bees. Soon thereafter, the cycle begins again.

There was a time in our collective history, not so long ago, when all humans took part in these processes; singing the songs of the seasons, which were gifted to their ancestors by all of Country and creation itself. Now, in devastating contrast, there are more recent indicators which signify not so much the connection to land as it once was, but rather, the changes that have taken place in those human communities which have consequently led to a mass upheaval and dislocation. The sounds of the local garbage trucks roaring up and down the streets, feasting on the waste and entrails of commercialisation. Regions now shrouded in fire and flood almost annually. Increased deforestation and ongoing risk of species decline across the globe. The list goes on.

While there is much to be concerned about, I have found inspiration recently in human communities answering a call back to the land. From Intentional Communities, permaculture groups, rewilding projects, and more. These people all share something in common, and that is that they feel the ‘song’ of Country singing them back to their natural human pattern. Most can’t describe what it is, but in my language of K/Gamilaroi, it is called ‘Maaya-li’ which means ‘to whisper’. Within this cultural, ontological context, a whisper can refer to a low frequency verbal form of communication, but additionally, it can be much more than that. It can refer also to a whisper in your heart or a feeling that you are being pulled back to place, a time, or a memory. It is a deep, authentic and absolute longing-ness for a return home, when you feel it.

In a similar vein, studies have shown that birds in captivity experience this longing-ness, too. Generally believed to be influenced by seasonal migratory instincts, and exposure to the earth’s local magnetic fields, many bird species have an endogenous sense of their migratory homes even without having a clear view of the sky. Other studies suggest that behavioural influences triggered by photoreceptors in the brain may also contribute to urges to migrate at various times of the year, while some birds use scent to guide them, and routes can be passed on generationally. This ‘migratory restlessness’ has been shown to mirror migration patterns and increase in intensity during the times that a captive bird is due to migrate, often ceasing around the time when they would arrive at their wintering grounds.

The German word Zugunruhe translates roughly to “the anxiety or restlessness due to migration’“ and is now used to describe ‘the behavioural manifestation of physiological changes leading up to the departure’ (Breed & Moore, 2022). However, perhaps there is some convergence between these differing cultural contexts which seek to describe the same process in similar ways. Each serves fundamentally as a call back to a particular place – whether located within time or space, local or non-local, or possibly combinations of each – and as such, the longing-ness essentially triggers a critical sense of importance to the individual to return to place, even if they don’t understand why or have never physically been to that place. The feeling is always there to varying degrees, and when it calls we must listen.

Over the coming decades, society will grow more and more restless, likely experiencing a global collective Zugunruhe; being called back into deeper and more profound relationships with the earth, all of its inhabitants, and all of Creation. They may feel the maaya-li (whisper) in their hearts that comes in fluctuating waves of gentle flickers along the shoreline, to tidal waves of overwhelming emotion which indicates the inherent need or desire to be part of something greater than themselves, which can be found in a return home.

Will we wait until it’s too late, denying the call, and continuing to muffle, silence or neglect it, while opting instead for shiny, meaningless objects which serve only to keep us distracted and disconnected from one another, and the Country? Perhaps it is worth humouring the thought of our mothers swaying to the sounds of the kookaburras in the evening, or our children collecting the dew drops from the grass as the sun climbs to its perch atop the autumn sky, what would we give to be clothed in wildflowers ourselves as our Elders and ancients watch on from their campsites in Sky Country? The cycle is waiting to begin again, it starts with us.


Chu, M., 2007. Songbird journeys: four seasons in the lives of migratory birds. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Breed, M.D. and Moore, J., 2021. Animal behavior. Academic Press.

Eikenaar, C., Klinner, T., Szostek, K.L. and Bairlein, F., 2014. Migratory restlessness in captive individuals predicts actual departure in the wild. Biology letters, 10(4), p.20140154.

Ferro, C., 2016, How Do Bird Know How To Migrate?, Mental Floss

Gwinner, E. and Wiltschko, W., 1978. Endogenously controlled changes in migratory direction of the garden warbler, Sylvia borin. Journal of Comparative Physiology, 125(3), pp.267-273.

Mouritsen, H., 2022. Magnetoreception in birds and its use for long-distance migration. In Sturkie’s avian physiology (pp. 233-256). Academic Press.

Robins, N., 2019, How do birds know where to migrate?, Grunge


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