By Ruth Barcan, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies
I have been a birdwatcher for decades. I’m not single-minded or knowledgeable enough to call myself a birder or twitcher but nor am I likely to leave my binoculars at home on even the shortest of walks. I have a well-ticked Simpson and Day1 that I would be devastated to lose.
I live on the edge of bushland, so COVID lockdowns have not interfered with my ability to observe birds. Here, though, I discuss what lockdowns have meant for my interactions with birds in the domestic space, focusing on the birdbath in the corner of my back deck. I received this birdbath as a somewhat quirky present a few years ago and it has become an important and meaningful part of my suburban life, enmeshed in daily habits of household maintenance and of perception.
The backyard setting is important, since gardens are “places where key environmental engagements occur” for most Australians.2 This has been amplified under COVID lockdowns, as suggested by a tenfold increase in responses to BirdLife Australia’s annual “Birds in Backyards” survey in 2020.3 As bird populations come under pressure, birdwatching from home is increasingly ecologically significant – whether as a generator of citizen science knowledge, an affective engine that might help galvanise broader environmental concern, or as a location for acts of stewardship and care for avian “friends.”
The scholarly and practical attention to the household as a space of environmental engagement tallies with the shifting foundations of the discipline of ecology which, according to Thom van Dooren, is starting to stretch towards the recognition that humans need to be included in the oikos (i.e. household) to which it owes its name (“oikos” is etymologically linked to “eco”).4 The converse is also true: many urban and suburban dwellers are coming to see non-human beings as part of their household. This is not a neat incorporation, but rather a “difficult work of crafting flourishing multispecies communities,”5 which often involves inconvenience and frustration. As van Dooren notes, forging such communities involves the “slow, careful work of attending to the particular.”6
In the three or four years since it has stood in the corner of our deck, the birdbath has grown into a hub of multispecies life, serving not only birds, but possums, flying foxes, bees and, I suspect, snakes. It has allowed my human household to observe bird interactions up close but has also “interjected”7 itself into the worlds of the birds who dwell in the nearby trees and brought in new avian actants who had previously only passed by overhead. It has thus come to be both a site for human-bird relations, in which my household is “learning to see and to see-with”8 a small cohort of birds, and a prompt for new interactions between birds themselves.
Despite the multi- and inter-sensorial elements involved in our interactions, I focus here on vision, not only because it is still undoubtedly crucial to birding but also because it is the presumed ocularcentrism of birdwatching that has come in for the most sustained academic critique. Critics of birdwatching point to the intermeshing of power-knowledge regimes with particular sensoria, especially ocularcentric ones.9 In such analyses, the lists, field guides and binoculars quintessentially associated with birdwatching are understood as technologies of capture enmeshed in colonial extractive logics that rely on and reproduce particular sensory hierarchies. Birdwatching is figured as a form of “symbolic hunting,”10 a “taxonomic discourse”11 par excellence. This is an important point. But birdwatching cannot be reduced to symbolic capture, ignoring the contexts and embodied experiences of its practice.
First, as with all birding, vision isn’t the only sense involved but an important part of a complex intersensory mix. Second, the vision involved in birdwatching is not singular, but involves many modes of looking, including glancing, peeking, peripheral vision, alertness to shadows or movement, or looking down to avoid startling a bird. Third, my back-deck birdwatching has little to do with what Spencer Schaffner accurately characterises as the primary, obsessive and singular “rhetorical accomplishment” of birdwatching –“successful identification and naming.”12 For I know already that the bath will be visited by a limited range of the local bird population: Noisy Miners, Red Wattlebirds, Brush Wattlebirds, and, when these rather intimidating birds give her a chance, a female Satin Bowerbird. We get occasional visits from Butcherbirds, a pair of Crested Pigeons and a family of Brown Cuckoo-Doves. Recently, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos have discovered that we are a reliable source of drinking water and in 2020 the Pied Currawongs added us to their winter dispersal itinerary, having discovered that the bath is the perfect vessel for their characteristic regurgitation of undigested seeds.
These birds are familiar – so familiar that wattlebirds haven’t merited any serious attention in my Simpson and Day. I do, though, play daily identification games by proxy, diagnosing early-morning feathers, shit or vomit and “reading” the splash zone like a watery sign: an extensive splash zone might hint that the bowerbird has been for an early bath, since she seems to be an unenthusiastic drinker but an exuberant splasher. I am learning small details of avian habits, personalities and lives – learning that bigger birds aren’t always fearless; that some species prefer to swim while others prefer to drink, that some birds splash much more than others, and that Brush Wattlebirds are extremely finicky about washing, and spend time cleaning their feet.
As this brief description shows, I don’t pretend that I am not seduced by the pleasures of taxonomic discourse. But this is not the sum total of my engagements with these birds. Context matters.
For I also engage with these birds in new ways, including the matinal scrubbing away of currawong regurgitant. This is my fourth point: that the vision involved in back-deck birdwatching is not a singular process of capture in the service of identification but something that can activate a variety of calls to action that might include picking up a camera, but are equally likely to involve retreating from the window, delaying a cup of tea, asking other family members to be quiet, calling out “hello” to the bird in question, imitating a birdcall or going outside with bucket and brush to clean and refill the bath.
Finally, and crucially, the visual engagements at the birdbath are not unilateral. Not only do they involve humans looking at birds, they also involve birds looking at humans in our own ‘natural’ habitat, and birds looking at other birds.
As I move about my kitchen, the birds watch me from the railing or the bath rim, making visible risk/benefit assessments about the safety of drinking or bathing in my presence. As I watch them watching me, I become curious not only about the sensibilities of different species – surprised to find that enormous birds with powerful beaks like cockatoos seem more nervous than little bullies like Noisy Miners or Wattlebirds – but also about the birds’ perceptive capacities. The Miner flinches even when I am a long way away and the Bowerbird obviously still knows I am there as I peep motionlessly from behind the laundry door, leading me to speculate about how far and in what ways the different species can see and how they might be processing movement, shadows and colours. Birds also watch me from the neighbouring trees. It is not uncommon for a bird to swoop down immediately after I have cleaned and refilled the birdbath. Clearly, they had been watching, unseen, from the gum trees. Sometimes a Noisy Miner will live up to its name and call out loudly to its flock when it sees me coming out to the deck, bucket in hand, alerting them to the upcoming fresh water.
The birdbath also obliges birds to watch other birds. Competition for fresh water brings about an ever-shifting acrobatics of intra- and inter-species swooping and vigilant suspicious watching. Some days there are patient line-ups of birds waiting on railings, wires and plants until their turn arises; other days bring sudden aerial attacks, aggressive beak snapping and snarky calling. Just when I think I’ve worked out the bird hierarchy (Brush Wattlebirds trump the bigger Red Wattlebirds; Noisy Miners trump Bowerbirds) some individual bird will break the rules, teaching me that the hierarchy is not entirely stable and – again – that context matters.
Finally, and moving away from the bath, it is also the case that birds teach us to see in new ways. Recently, my attempt at a mid-afternoon meditation pick-me-up failed, hijacked by the incessant shrill calls of a large family of Noisy Miners. Knowing from experience that they are never wrong – if they say something is up, then something is up – I went outside to see what the fuss was all about. There in a tree near our front door was a ringtail possum that I would not have seen had they not been divebombing and screaming. The Miners taught me to see something at my own front door.
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, written by Jay Johnston, can be found here.
1. Ken Simpson, Nicholas Day, and Peter Trusler, Field Guide to the Birds of Australia: The Most Complete One-Volume Book of Identification, 4th edn. (Girraween, NSW: Lifetime Distributors/Penguin, 1993).
2. Lesley Head, Pat Muir, and Eva Hampel, “Australian Backyard Gardens and the Journey of Migration,” Geographical Review 94, no. 3 (2004), 327.
3. Ayesha Tulloch, April Reside, Georgia Garrard, Michelle Ward, and Monica Awasthy, “Birdwatching Increased Tenfold Last Lockdown. Don’t Stop, It’s a Huge Help for Bushfire Recovery,” The Conversation [Australia], 9 July 2020, https://theconversation.com/birdwatching-increased-tenfold-last-lockdown-dont-stop-its-a-huge-help-for-bushfire-recovery-141970
4. Thom van Dooren, The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 44-45.
5. van Dooren, Wake of Crows, 55.
6. van Dooren, Wake of Crows, 10.
7. van Dooren, Wake of Crows, ch. 1.
8. van Dooren, Wake of Crows, 12.
9. For example: Spencer Schaffner, “Field Guides to Birds: Images and Image/Text Positioned as Reference,” in Ecosee: Image, Rhetoric, Nature, ed. Sidney I. Dobrin and Sean More (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009) and Spencer Schaffner, Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).
10. Kenneth Sheard, “A Twitch in Time Saves Nine: Birdwatching, Sport, and Civilizing Processes,” Sociology of Sport Journal 16, no. 3 (1999): 181-205.
11. Schaffner, “Field Guides,” 97.
12. Schaffner, “Field Guides,” 96.
Ruth Barcan is Honorary Associate Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney and an affiliate of the Sydney Environment Institute.