Bright red parrot perched on a forest branch

Wild sense: Ethics and multisensory ecology

13 October 2021
In this reflective piece, Jay Johnston considers how sensory ecology may open up creative space for humans to better-know our fellow creatures and build worlds that reflect this knowledge.

By Jay Johnston, Department of Studies in Religion.

As explored in the eccentric adventures of Charles Foster in Being A Beast, non-human animals perceive the world very differently to humans.Foster’s often hilarious escapades utilised his knowledge of sensory systems to demonstrate the sheer alterity of the ways that particular animals, including deer and swifts, experience the world. His preparation involved training his own senses to be more like those of the species he wanted to emulate. However, no matter how hard he tried to enter their worlds, alterity always remained.

This short blog is an introduction to the emerging field of sensory ecology. This new and exciting approach has significant potential for conservation practice. Moreover, its focus on intersensoriality and human/other-than-human interrelationships makes it a useful lens through which to open up questions about inter- and multi-species ethics. The focus of this blogpost is on birds, but I open with a more general introduction to the kinds of non-human lives and experiences brought closer by sensory ecology.

Considered an aspect of behavioural ecology, sensory ecology encompasses understanding the many different sensory systems that other animals have; how these systems function and how the animals use them.

Animal sensory systems are really wild! The range of the human senses appear limited in comparison. Not only can many animals hear sounds at lower (infrasonic) and higher (ultrasonic) frequencies for example, but they have senses that humans simply do not. Bats (chiropterans) and some cetaceans, like whales, use echolocation: emitting and perceiving sound waves and echoes to navigate. Mainly aquatic species utilise electroreception to detect electrical impulses from prey and to locate objects. Australia’s platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) has the distinction of being the only mammal known to have this sense. Magnetoreception, a sense that detects magnetic fields, has been found in a range of invertebrates and vertebrates.

It is not only that other-than-human species have different sensory systems and perceptive capacities, but that in a given class — for example Aves — a great range of diversity can exist between species. As Graham Martin writes in Bird Senses, “In effect each species lives in a different secret world. Species may share the same environment, but the worlds that they inhabit are different.”As Martin puts it clearly, there are many different “birds’-eye views.”3

Avian species are distinguished by their capacity to see in the ultraviolet (UV) colour range invisible to humans. A plumage that looks drab grey or monochrome brown to the human eye may appear to birds as a feast of iridescent pinks, blues and greens. Some species of Australian parrots, for example King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis) have even been found to have feathers that glow. Indeed, as identified by Bennett et. al. ultraviolet hues play a role in Zebra Finch mate selection.As behavioural ecologist Esteban Fernández–Juric exclaims “birds can perceive colours that humans cannot even imagine.”5

Seeking greater understanding of how avian species perceive the world may make a useful contribution to conservation practice, through assisting in the design of programs and environments to protect species and also helping us to understand and mitigate the negative impacts on wildlife of human-induced sensory pollution. Anthropogenic noise is one, blaring example: engine and machinery racket, sonar waves and all manner of blips, bangs and clatter are relentlessly produced by human societies. Studies have shown that these can cause disruption in animal communication systems and induce stresses that have a range of impacts, including individual mortality and breeding failure. During COVID lockdowns the momentary lull in this noisescape has meant that some urban bird species were able to sing more softly or more complexly.Sensory ecology attunes us to these subtle responses to our own actions.

We can also focus our analytic attention onto historical accounts of how humans lived with and alongside birds. In Birdmania, Bernd Brunner recounts nineteenth-century records of the relationship between James, a lyrebird, and a Mrs Wilkensen, who lived a solitary existence in a remote mountain valley.7 Their relationship was characterised by Ambrose G. H. Pratt (1874–1944) as “close[,] almost telepathic”who further recorded:

Nausea beset her [Mrs Wilkensen], and for several hours she lay prostrate, wondering in the intervals between spasms of acute sickness how long a time must pass before some tradesman or neighbours might come to whom she could appeal for help. She fell at length into an exhausted slumber, to be awakened by strange scratching sounds outside her bedroom window. They continued for at least an hour, then suddenly the head of her beloved bird appeared in silhouette about the sill, and ‘James’ began to sing to her as she had never heard him sing before. The lovely miracle cured Mrs Wilkensen more effectively than could all the physicians in the capital.9

While we can (and should) consider this prose within the discursive tropes of its time, of note in this context is the perception of human–bird relational healing and the rendering of relations founded on something other than the five senses of empirical science (reductively considered) and that this close personal relation emerged and developed over time.

This relation was not a reading of the species appearance symbolically (birds of course, have long been viewed as symbol and omens). Nor was this type of specific, relational “knowing” unique, as I discovered after presenting a public lecture on bird divination at a birdwatching festival. Unexpectedly, participants shared details of their own specific, personal bird relations. These were deep relations that drew together experiences of locality, biography, and shared human–bird routines.

To acknowledge, recognise, ‘see’ these relations required a discipline of consistent attention: a multisensory practice of care established upon and fulfilled via sensory engagement. Significantly, these relations were founded upon the lived recognition that avian and human contributed equally. Sensory engagement constituted a genuine conversation – not, for the human participants, an empathic engagement with a (erroneously presumed) less knowledgeable being.  This is a complex dance between familiarity and alterity; a space of ethical import for which an expanded sensory literacy is requisite.

There is no doubt that birds live in multisensory worlds. It may be that the duration, repetition and relations of familiarity developed via time spent in such practices as birdwatching — actively cultivating multisensory relations — enable us to both glean a little of avian worlds and expand our own perceptual literacy. This possibility is explored in Ruth Barcan’s companion piece.

This reflective piece draws from work presented at the School of Literature, Art and Media’s Birds and Language Conference, which occurred at the University of Sydney in August 2021. Its companion piece from Ruth Barcan will be published here next week.

1. Charles Foster, Being a Beast: An Intimate and Radical Look at Nature (London: Profile Books, 2016).

2. Graham R. Martin, Bird Senses: How and What Birds See, Hear, Smell, Taste and Feel (Exeter: Pelagic Publications, 2021), 3.

3. Martin, Bird Senses, 5.

4. Andy T. D. Bennet, Innes C. Cuthill, J. C. Partridge and Erhard J. Maier. “Ultraviolet Vision and Mate Choice in Zebra Finches.” Nature 380 (1996): 433–435.

5. Esteban Fernández–Juric 2016, 155.

6. Elizabeth P. Derryberry, Jennifer N. Phillips, Graham E. Derryberry, Michael J. Blum, and David Luther. “Singing in a Silent Spring: Birds Respond to a Half-Century Soundscape Reversion During the Covid-19 Shutdown.” Science 370, no. 6516 (2020): 575-79.

7. Bernd Brunner, Birdmania: A Remarkable Passion for Birds (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2015) 146–47.

8. Brunner, Birdmania, 146.

9. Brunner quoting Ambrose G. H. Pratt Birdmania, 146.

Jay Johnston is Associate Professor, Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney.

Header image by Steve Franklin, via UnSplash.