A Sensory Ecology Approach to Birdwatching: Learning to Look Askance.


by Ruth Barcan and Jay Johnston

View Ruth Barcan's Biography

Ruth Barcan is a member of the Sydney Environment Institute and Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Humanities at The University of Sydney.

View Jay Johnston's Biography

Jay Johnston is a Professor in the School of Humanities, University of Sydney.

A Sensory Ecology Approach to Birdwatching: Learning to Look Askance.1




Animals perceive the world very differently from humans, as is evident in the eccentric adventures of Charles Foster in his book Being a Beast (2016). Foster's frequently hilarious escapades in sensory experimentation were built on this significant, but often overlooked, fact. Using his knowledge of a particular animal 's sensory system, Foster trained his own senses to be more like those of the species he wanted to emulate. But no matter how hard he tried to enter their worlds, to 'be' a badger, swift, deer, fox or otter, alterity always remained. That alterity is as significant ethically as it is sensorially, but, as this paper will argue, there is much to be gleaned by entering into more consciously cultivated multisensory relations.

We make this case via a focus on birds and birdwatching. Avian species are often distinguished by their capacity to see in the ultraviolet (UV) colour range invisible to humans (Bennett and Cuthill 1994; Martin 2021). An avian 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), Budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) and Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus moluccanus) (Fig. 1), have even been found to have feathers that glow (Australian Museum 2019; Mullen 2007). As behavioural ecologist Esteban Fernández-Juric exclaims, "birds can perceive colours that humans cannot even imagine" (2016, 155). And this account speaks only of the visual senses.

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Fig. 1 Rainbow lorikeets (Trichoglossus moluccanus). Digital photograph, 2020 ©Jay Johnston.

Our paper explores the complex multispecies relations of seeing and being seen involved in birdwatching, a term so reductive that it should be understood as written in invisible quotation marks. In exploring these intersubjective relations, we acknowledge that avian perception will forever slip beyond our ken, but as researchers in the Humanities, we nonetheless see value in attempting to explore sensory interrelationships and considering their potential conceptual, ethical and practical ramifications. We begin by introducing the emerging field of sensory ecology, noting its significant potential to conservation practice and its challenge to preconceptions regarding biological focus on the study of individual senses. We then turn to 'birdwatching,' problematising the overly simple critiques of ocularcentrism that typify the relatively sparse academic literature on the topic. We amplify this caution through a focused study of the complexity of vision in one particular birding context — observing birds at home during a COVID-19 lockdown. Through this example, we aim to problematise and expand dominant frameworks of 'birdwatching' in favour of an approach that is more open to the complexity and variance of sensory experience in human-bird engagements. We believe that becoming more attuned to the sensory life of birds (and other non-human animals) is one means of becoming more aware of our own impacts on other species, and hence has value in environmental awareness and conservation practice, especially given the importance of everyday engagements with other species in an increasingly urbanised world.

Sensory Ecology

Animal sensory systems are really wild! The range of the human senses appears limited in comparison. For example, not only can many animals hear sounds at lower (infrasonic) and higher (ultrasonic) frequencies, they also 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 and feed (Allaby 2014). Some aquatic species utilise electroreception to detect electrical impulses from prey and to locate objects. The platypus has the distinction of being the only mammal known to have this "sixth sense" (Burrell, in Grant 2007, 59). Magnetoreception, a sense that detects magnetic fields, has been found in a range of invertebrates and vertebrates (Martin 2021; Stevens 2013). While scientists continue to debate its latent presence in humans, they are much more united on its occurrence in birds and its use for orientation and navigation (Martin 2017, 108-112; Wang et. al. 2019). It is not only that other-than-human species have different sensory systems and perceptive capacities, but that even within a given class — for example Aves — there is great diversity. 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" (2021, 3). As Martin puts it clearly, there are many different "birds'-eye views" (2021: 3). This challenge to the singular is taken up by sensory ecology.

Sensory ecology is a subfield of behavioural ecology that studies animals' many different sensory systems, how they function, and how animals use them (Fernández-Juric 2016). In addition to investigating how multiple senses interact, sensory ecology research also challenges preconceptions about the role of individual senses in a specific type of environment. For example, recent research by Ben Pitcher and Gemma Carroll (2020) has evidenced that Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor) utilise the sense of smell (underwater) to locate food, creating dinner maps of the ocean. The operation of the sense of smell underwater was not previously considered as a dominant factor in prey location.

There is no doubt that birds live in multisensory worlds: "many commonly observed [bird ] behaviours involve not only sight but also hearing, taste, touch, smell, and even the detection of the earth's magnetic field, used in various combinations" (Martin 2021, 6). Understanding how avian species perceive the world can make a useful contribution to conservation practice. For example, it can assist in the design of programs and environments to protect species, be of crucial importance to the successful reintroduction of captive-bred animals (like the Regent Honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia) chicks being taught to sing the 'right' songs by music therapists at Sydney's Taronga Zoo) and also help us to understand and mitigate the negative impacts on wildlife of human-made sensory pollution. Anthropogenic noise — the noise that humans introduce to the environment — is one such example. Engine and machinery racket, sonar waves and all manner of blips, bangs and clatter are relentlessly produced. 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 (Halfwerk et al. 2011; Kight 2012; Senzaki et al. 2020). For example, birds were found to sing more complex songs, at lower volume, during COVID lockdowns, when traffic and aviation noise was greatly dimmed (Derryberry et al. 2020). Part of the argument of this paper is that expanding our understanding of and attunement to animals' sensory worlds is both an ethical imperative and a tool in conservation. In the case of noise pollution and birdsong, for example, a more attuned relation to birds' sensory worlds helps us realise that we need to be more conscious of our own sensory pollution and work to reduce it.

Where might birdwatching fit into this ethical project? It typically doesn't fare so well in Humanities scholarship, which tends to see it as an extractive exercise built on sensory capture. So, are birdwatchers simply "symbolic hunters" as the classic critique would have it (Sheard 1999), or might they more accurately be recognised as "sensory ecologists" attuned to the complexity of birds and bird worlds and activating their own complex processes of perception in a "split-second, gestalt ability to recognise a species" by "combining book knowledge with long field experience" (MacDonald 2020, 21)? We do not seek to overturn the critiques, but we complicate them by suggesting that the duration, repetition and relations of familiarity developed via time spent birdwatching — actively cultivating multisensory relations — may also enable us to both glean a little of avian worlds and expand our own perceptual literacy. To amplify this claim, we turn now to Ruth 's account of birdwatching at home during a COVID lockdown.

Re-Examining Vision: Birdwatching in Lockdown

I have been a birdwatcher for decades. I am neither single-minded nor knowledgeable enough to call myself a birder or a twitcher, but on the other hand, I am not someone who is likely to leave her binoculars at home on even the shortest of walks, and I have a well-ticked Simpson and Day that I would be devastated to lose (Simpson, Day and Trusler 1993). I live on the edge of bushland in Sydney's north, and in this section I discuss what it is like to watch birds from my house. My vision here is very narrow: I will focus on the birdbath in the corner of a large back deck that overlooks the bushland valley (Fig. 2), ignoring all those other delightful moments when a massive bird of prey wheels around the valley or the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) muster raucously at sunset before heading off down the valley to roost. This birdbath, given to me a few years ago by a friend in what I initially considered a somewhat quirky birthday present, has prompted new engagements between humans and birds as well as between birds themselves.

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Fig. 2 Birdbath. Digital photograph, 2020 ©Ruth Barcan.

The backyard setting is important, since gardens are "places where key environmental engagements occur" for most Australians (Head et al. 2004, 327). This was amplified under COVID lockdowns: BirdLife Australia reported a tenfold increase in their annual Birds in Backyards survey between 2019 and 2020 (Tulloch et al. 2020). 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." This 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 oekos (i.e., household) to which it owes its name (oekos = eco). 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" (van Dooren 2019, 55), which often involves inconvenience and frustration. As van Dooren notes, forging such communities involves the "slow, careful work of attending to the particular" (2019, 10).

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 interaction, serving not only birds, but possums, flying foxes, bees and the occasional snake. It has allowed my human household to observe bird interactions up close but has also "interjected" (van Dooren 2019, 40) 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" (van Dooren 2019, 12) a small cohort of birds, and a prompt for new interactions between birds themselves.

Attending to these interactions involves participating in a new "auditory geography" (Rodaway 1994, 84) that includes alertness to bird calls, beak snaps, wing flapping and whirring (Murray, Zeil, and Macgrath 2017), water splashes, feather ruffling and the tiny clink of claws on metal railings. One on occasion it also produced haptic perception as a descending Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina) sent a whoosh of air that ruffled the hairs on my unshaven lockdown legs such that I physically felt the bird's presence before I saw it.

Despite these multi- and inter-sensorial elements, we 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. The sociocultural literature on birdwatching as an embodied phenomenon has tended to concentrate on the intermeshing of power-knowledge regimes with particular sensoria, especially ocularcentric ones (Schaffner 2011). 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. Helen MacDonald 's appreciative understanding of field guides' role in prompting us to experience the world more richly is a rare and welcome exception: "Field guides made possible the joy of encountering a thing I already knew but had never seen before" (2020, 21). Mostly, though, birdwatching is figured as a form of "symbolic hunting" (Sheard 1999), a "taxonomic discourse" par excellence (Schaffner 2009, 97).

In the face of this, it is tempting to stress the holistic phenomenology, environmental embeddedness and multisensory dimensions of birding as an embodied practice. While the description of the auditory geography above is a brief gesture in this direction, in this paper we stay with vision, and with an insistence that the particularities of any given birding context always matter.

We make five summary points about vision in the particular birding context being analysed here. First, as with all birding, vision is not the only sense involved but is 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, Ruth 's 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" (Schaffner 2009, 96). I will set aside the possibility that identification might actually enhance rather than detract from engagement with the living world (MacDonald 2020, 22) and remain within the parameters of this critique to note that I know already that the bath will be visited by a limited range of the local bird population: Noisy Miners (Manorina melanocephala), Red Wattlebirds (Anthochaera carunculata), Little Wattlebirds (Anthochaera chrysoptera), and, when these rather intimidating birds give her a chance, a female Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus). We get occasional visits from Grey Butcherbirds (Cracticus torquatus), a pair of Crested Pigeons (Ocyphaps lophotes) and a family of Brown Cuckoo-Doves (Macropygia amboinensis). Recently, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos have discovered that we are a reliable source of drinking water, and in 2020 the Pied Currawongs (Strepera graculina) added us to their winter dispersal itinerary, having discovered that the bath is the perfect vessel for their characteristic regurgitation of undigested seeds (Fig. 3). These birds are familiar to me — so familiar that wattlebirds have not merited any serious ticking or listing 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 Little Wattlebirds are extremely finicky about washing, and spend time cleaning out their feet.

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Fig. 3 Regurgitant of Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina). Digital photograph, 2020 ©Ruth Barcan.

I am also engaging with these birds in new ways, including the matinal scrubbing away of currawong regurgitant. This is our 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 indeed include a vision-centred reflex like picking up a camera, but are equally likely to involve retreating from the kitchen, delaying a cup of tea, asking other family members to be quiet, calling out a "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, 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 have worked out the bird hierarchy (Little 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 may be dependent on a range of environmental conditions that might sharpen or diminish urgency as well as potentially on temperamental differences between individual birds of the same species. Thinking further, perhaps my focus on hierarchies and "trumping" is itself an anthropocentric reduction distracting me from instances of interspecies co-operation or communion?2

Finally, and moving away from the bath for just a moment, it is also the case that birds teach us to see in new ways. On one occasion, 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 Ring-tailed Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus) 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.

Conclusion: Looking Askance

Our close study of birdwatching in one context reinforces van Dooren's argument for the value of "the slow, careful work of attending to the particular" (2019, 10). This applies both to the academic study of the practice and to the lived experience of those who engage in it. We have sought to tease out the complexities and particularities of vision in one context, without even considering the multisensory dimensions of bird 'watching' or the way that contemporary birding apps are expanding the sensory remit and the power/knowledge relations of traditional field guides by including birdsong recorded by a variety of twitchers.

To conclude, we note that the multisensory dimensions of living closely with birds is not new and is detectable in the historical record. Even though the 'watching' of 'birdwatching' denotes a privileging of the visual, there have no doubt always been multiple regimes of multisensory human-bird relations. In Birdmania (2015, 146-147), 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 preserved for wildlife. Their relationship was characterised by Ambrose G. H. Pratt (1874-1944) as "close [,] almost telepathic" (146). He recounts one example:

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 (In Brunner 2015, 147).

We can (and should) consider this prose within the discursive tropes of its time. These include the salvation narrative form via which the experience is recounted and the social class privileges of Mrs Wilkensen. Pratt's interpretation of the encounter as "telepathic" is also especially 'of its time,' with telepathy being a subject of considerable scientific and popular investigation in the nineteenth century (Luckhurst 2002; Noakes 2019). In the context of this article, of especial note 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 agents in systems of symbols, omens and divination (Curley 1979; Goldhahn 2019). From ancient auguries and medieval bestiaries to contemporary animal spirit dictionaries, birds have featured as portents of the political and personal. Nor was this type of specific, relational 'knowing' itself unique, as Jay discovered after presenting a public lecture on bird signs and symbols at a birdwatching festival in 2018. The real joy of that presentation manifested after the event. For afterwards, many participants explained to Jay their own, very personal relation to wild birds. It was clear that these were sincere human-bird engagements in which meaningful communication and connection took place. The accounts interweaved personal biography and cultural tradition, specific place and shared life challenges.

Learning to see and 'hear' such bird relations requires a discipline, one that Jay's interlocutors must have developed over some time of careful observation and environmental familiarity/literacy. Each relation required that the individual viewed the world differently, cultivating perceptual interrelationships beyond those afforded by habitual sensory skills and also allowed knowledge to be held equally by avian species and themselves.

On considering this multisensory world and the sensory alterity that sits at the heart of any intraspecies exchange, we have to acknowledge that we can never know how we appear to our feathered cohabitants, but nonetheless they look back. Understanding some of the complex differences of that 'vision' should destabilise/undermine any assumption of human mastery. Sensory ecology asks: what actions can we take to be more sensitive to the species with which we share the world? This paper has offered a glimpse into one such context of a sensitivity enabled by an enforced disengagement with other modes of being in the world. Further, it has sought to demonstrate that there are several orders of sensory alterity. First of these is the specific acknowledgment of the vastly different ways that avian species perceive the world and the way that realising this disrupts our own assumptions about human visual acuity. Not only do we not 'see' in the same way, but we are usually blind to the relations built upon the complexities of vision. Secondly, we have suggested that conscious acts of cultivating relations of multisensory exchange have the potential to cross epistemological I-Other boundaries, including modes of knowing- relating beyond the 'ken' of empirical knowledge. Such communication requires the need to look askance to see clearly.

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  1. Earlier versions of this paper appeared as Jay Johnston, Wild Sense: Ethics and Multisensory Ecology, Sydney Environment Institute, The University of Sydney, 13 October 2021; and Ruth Barcan, Birding in Lockdown: Reconsidering Vision. Sydney Environment Institute, The University of Sydney, 18 October 2021. 

  2. Thanks to the anonymous reviewers of this piece, one of whom raised this possibility.