Reflections on Flight Ways and Bird Cultures

I finish Flight Ways. Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction in a house surrounded by birds. With windows at every turn, it sometimes feels like being in a very cosy bird hide. As I reflect on Thom Van Dooren’s haunting book, my companions are wrens hopping around nooks and crannies in their constant search for insects. A winter flock of Satin Bowerbirds lands on the lawn, eats and leaves. High above, a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles circles. Kookaburras and magpies greet the clear cold air of dawn.Flightways

Inside the house, feathers from who knows what far away bird fly as I shake out the old doona for visiting friends. A wooden duck welcomes them at the front door. There is chicken for dinner. Graham Pizzey and Neville Cayley help us name birds according to particular taxonomies and traditions, and learn more of their habits.

By taking us into the precarious lives of five different kinds of birds, Flight Ways is about much more than beings that fly (and not all do that). It is a challenging meditation about living with and in extinction, drawing on Donna Haraway’s motif of ‘staying with the trouble’. Chapter One, on the Black-footed Albatrosses of the North Pacific Ocean, ponders the time and labour required to keep successive generations in the world. It develops an understanding of species as multi-generational achievements. The next chapter explores the entanglements of Vultures in India. When they are no longer around to process the dead, a number of other lives are made difficult or impossible.

In the third chapter we come to Sydney Harbour, and the storied breeding sites of Little Penguins. Van Dooren discusses the ethical implications of destroying places that birds are tied to over time. Conservation programs based on captive breeding are the theme of the Whooping Crane chapter. The argument here is that there is a strange juxtaposition of care and violence at the heart of this conservation effort. Who suffers and who dies so that who can return (individuals, species, populations)? Finally, we consider the Hawaiian Crow as a mourner and griever. Van Dooren challenges the exceptionalism of understanding mourning as a solely human attribute, and wonders to what extent we can share stories of loss with other than humans.

Cultural relationships with birds have been documented in a variety of Australian contexts. To cite just one example, AUSCCER’s Carrie Wilkinson, Gordon Waitt and Leah Gibbs recently examined the practices of bird-watching. I first began to notice the importance of everyday relationships with birds when it emerged as an important theme in The Backyard Project. Bird visits were the most talked about animal activity, affording great pleasure to the keen and casual watcher alike.

One of the human-bird relationships documented in 'Backyard. Nature and Culture in Suburban Australia'

One of the human-bird relationships documented in ‘Backyard. Nature and Culture in Suburban Australia’

Co-author Pat Muir and I tried to understand why people valued birds so highly. At the simplest level it afforded them a great deal of pleasure to see wild birds come voluntarily into their backyards. It was an important part of the rhythm of people’s days to be woken by birds, to look at them out the kitchen window, or to sit and watch them from a deck. As Peter in the Hills District north of Sydney said:

I like the bird life and we are constantly having birds such as king parrots and black cockies and all that sort of thing coming over into the trees there. And it’s my way of meditating really out in the backyard.

It is also a relationship with limited responsibility. Burdens that might be associated with having a pet do not apply to visiting birds. On another level, visits from wild birds were considered an indicator of getting something right in the backyard, particularly by those people who made close observations and were keen to encourage smaller and rarer species.

These are relationships of mutual flourishing, quite a long way from the edge of extinction. Indeed some bird species, including native ones such as currawongs, have flourished so much in urban settings that they become quite hated by backyarders. A number argued that currawongs should be culled on the basis of their aggressive behaviour to smaller birds. As with trees, cats, native plants and weeds, birds are situated in a complex politics of nativeness and belonging that results in some being killed and some being loved.

The backyard study proceeded from the human end of the relationship, in contexts where the health of the bird species was not in question – indeed it was often enhanced by the relationship with humans. The concept of bird cultures emerged out of the study, but it was not something we went looking for, and there is much more to be studied and said about human-bird relationships in the garden.

I’m pretty sure Thom Van Dooren would not like the concept of ‘bird cultures’ – framed too much around a human centre. Rather he wants to take us into the lives of birds, and the lives that humans and others share with those birds. Using a careful combination of his own ethnographies and ethological research, he does a great job of this, carefully avoiding any hint of anthropomorphism.

Many studies in the more-than-human mode engender little more than the ‘So, what?’ question. This is not one of those. In encouraging us to linger with the trouble, it reminds us of the many values of  ethnographic approaches. It gives us new tools to think about extinction and species with. And in more ways than one, it is an unexpectedly hopeful book.

You can find out more about Professor Lesley Head here or follow her on Twitter @ProfLesleyHead. Lesley’s last post was Post-presentation shutdown and the art of question time.

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