Vectoring Deep Time: Birds and Language


by Dr Madeleine Kelly

View Madeleine Kelly's Biography

Madeleine Kelly is an artist and senior lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney. Her work explores the many, often ineffable, points of contact between people, animals and plants such that the material world is transformed in rich and absorbing fantasy.

Vectoring Deep Time: Birds and Language

Dr Madeleine Kelly

"All animals communicate, but language is uniquely human", states evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel (2019 Glasgow Gifford Lecture). Pagel's assertion posits a disparity, that language can only be defined in terms of a separation of humans from non-human "animals". In this paper, I engage — not without irony — with the critical differences Pagel argues between humans and non-human animals to advocate for an expanded view of language.1 In examining Pagel's assertion, we can ask: do non-human animals, such as birds, have language? This classic question, the relevance of which has increased with the ubiquity of computer language, is linked to a series of conundrums: how do we define language? How can we ever know the subjective point of view of birds or other non-human animals? Why is language a vital category? These problems are not mutually exclusive, as I will show, our shared biological life with the Australian landscape and its birds gives us a foothold to understand language. This multi-species perspective respects the inherent aporias of subjectivity. While we can only prescribe our human feelings to connect to birds — perhaps another form of holding, pressing or colonising the world — the category of the index provides a structure to explore the effect of language through our shared evolutionary origin, amplifying our sense of community. 

Throughout history, humans have found communion with birds through language, using language. From the mythological "language of birds" to musical or whistled bird-human languages2, exchanges have occurred from birds to humans. The reverse has also occurred, with birds such as Australian lyrebirds and parrots imitating non-bird sounds. Yet Pagel claims that the compositionality of human language makes it a digital form of communication — words are either on or off — while animal communication, be it colourful or durational sound, is analogue, so continuous in amplitude. Following from this, the "analogue" is associated with the sensory and, by implication, nature, while language is associated with culture, the combinatorial logic of the "digital". This raises interesting questions about birds and language. As I will show, combinatorial language does not eclipse birds and human language is anything but a uniform, quantitative, digital concept. While my discussion centres on birds, they are not necessarily the only example for this argumentation. Whales/cetaceans (Marino) and bats (Knörnschild et al.), and apparently even hyenas, learn their vocabulary through imitative learning. Additionally, monkeys communicating referentially and honey bees using "dance language" (Kohl) demonstrate elements of symbolic language.

Certainly, from a conservational perspective, the definition of language I explore here moves beyond the point of human exceptionalism and the quantitative, extractivist system that it supports and validates to a biosemiotic understanding of language that stresses the community of living things. As the primary form of communication, language ought to function ethically, to bind "community grounded in a common identity or purpose: community as that which is held in common" (van Dooren 49, referencing Devadas and Mummery 2007). Here language is a portal through which we can attempt to interpret and translate the world of birds so that we might see the common ground in our communication and in our ecological commons as beyond extractive sources.

In this essay, I first consider language in the broad sense of biosemiotics focusing on its material indexical qualities while also touching on how bird communication contains a syntax. Secondly, I move to the Australian landscape with crucial consideration of research that shows how it shaped bird vocal and song learning across the world. Thirdly, I describe how recent linguistic theories of language draw from trees and birds, both neuroanatomically and behaviourally. While my expanded view of language stresses the indexical, the iconic and symbolic are also vital categories. I conclude by outlining instances of bird visual and acoustic rhythms that are arguably digital and richly semiotic combinatorial pulses of communication. I also show how birds and language disrupt analogue — digital and sensory — language dichotomies, undoing the apparent opposition Pagel established, perhaps revealing a kind of conundrum — that a comparative biologist, best known for his ability to compare continuous data across taxa, states such a categorical point.

By "language", I do not only refer to the usual combinations of words, syntax, speech and writing, recognising it is within their rules I write, nor to a solely anthropocentric concept, but a language that transcends human values. The materiality of language, as defined by philosopher Michel Foucault, is one that I wish to invoke here. According to Foucault, the statements that comprise language are endowed with a repeatable materiality (Foucault 2010: 120). "Language, in its appearance and mode of being, is the statement; as such, it belongs to a description that is neither transcendental nor anthropological" (127).

Biosemiotic materialities

To ensure that the freedoms offered by materiality and relativity avoid collapsing meaning altogether, bio-semiotician Wendy Wheeler offers a valuable framework to explore non-human language. Biosemiosis, she posits, is the view that language (or meaning) developed in communities of living systems, between their cells, vessels and bodies, exchange meaningful data. From the micro to the macro, she suggests that language, a part of consciousness, is coded through bodies, through biological activities, chemical or behavioural, involving signs. Noting preceding philosophers Nietzsche, Husserl and Derrida, who also examined how meaning "begins in the life of bodies and evolved out of them" (Wheeler 142), she shapes the idea that human languages evolved very much like biological species.

For non-human language, Wheeler extends the Peircian3 category of the index, an inferential tactic contingent on the vestige, trace or clue, to look at "internal biological systems as signifying and communicating" (Wheeler 140). As such, the index presents the paradox of being both unconscious and a sign of consciousness, providing a continuous material metric for classifying elements of communication. Language's indexical character is a result of its material facticity, with bodies serving as containers for intersubjective meaning and connections between other bodies. Because sounds and material forms are produced by bodies they also become corporeal. This is particularly relevant for the intricate connections between Australian birds and their landscape — how birds and language produce each other — which the following section explores. These connections provide an "extra-sensory" place in deep time to consider the biological origin of human language.

The social work of exchanging indexical material forms creates a common structure, wherein an index can, at times, attain symbolic meaning, both consciously and unconsciously. In his sound work, academic and artist Paul Carter suggests effects that are unconscious "can climb into consciousness" (Carter 42). Unconscious collective meaning is already known, existing across generations and imbuing it with a primordial presence. In this space anterior to human knowledge, the language of birds belongs to a "presystematic" — a "pre‐language" of the indexes and multiple patterns that parallel a syntax or language. To state the elements of language that constitute pre-language and those that constitute full language is beyond the scope of this essay. However, one could argue that full language is symbolic, while pre-language is indexical and deeper in homology; that is, it shares cellular and molecular traits with other bodies. This resonates with the legend of the origin of iconic painting or words. Painting began when Kora of Sicyon, to remember her lover, traced his shadow (an index) on the wall. In a similar way, words resemble the sounds they describe, like the waves that shape the onomatopoeic "Woll-long-gong" of the Dharawal Nation, where I live, in the traditional land of the Wodi-Wodi people. "Signs beget more signs" (Wheeler 143) when nature performs its onomatopoeic play, leaving marks and impressions that repeat to form a rhythm, a language. This land booms with intelligent birdlife — honeyeaters, songbirds and parrots being the most common, but all sorts of water wings too. Where I grew up — in The Gap, between mountains on the outskirts of Meanjin (Brisbane) — my early memories are of dense tropical birdlife calling through the night and singing in multi-layered dawn choruses. This morning symphony reminds me that "complicated calls and intelligence seem to go together" (Low 78).

To imagine language through an indexical biosemiotic lens is to imagine a world before ours — the crest of this reserve, back in deep time, when natural mimesis and semiosis thrived. This reminds me of Foucault's invocation of the presystematic:

Behind the visible façade of the system, one posits the rich uncertainty of disorder; and beneath the thin surface of discourse, the whole mass of a largely silent development (devenir): a "presystematic" that is not of the order of the system; a "prediscursive" that belongs to an essential silence. Discourse and system produce each other — and conjointly — only at the crest of this immense reserve. (Foucault 2010 84-85) 

Could this prediscursive time be the "place" to imagine the gulf between humans and birds, a "space" more than 300 million years deep that returns us to the last common bird-human ancestor, an amniote in the Carboniferous period? (Low 111). Or should we imagine an even more unfettered domain? Through his work with corvids, van Dooren argues that we should work "against a myopic focus on (human) language" towards the political agency of all living beings, "as in 'prefigurative' approaches to politics" (van Dooren 40). If the prediscursive or prefigurative is a reasonable space to reimagine language, the liveliness of Australia, where birdsong began, is similarly the crest of a reserve, a "deep time" where trees, birds and language produced each other.

Sydney-based artist Blake Lawrence's Contact Call (2022) conjures such intersections by combining improvised humming and whistling with the gestures of drag performance. A microphone is drawn over the ground to create textured sounds looped with marginal sound and approximated bird calls. The sounds build into a pattern made from raw intersections of matter — a primordial lament for compounding biological losses and a generative space where we witness meaning evolve. The work takes us back to 15 million years ago when the oldest living songbirds, primordial lyrebirds, were vested with vocal learning, long before humans evolved some nine million years later. Lyrebirds have unsurpassed mimicry; they teach their young to imitate calls no longer present in their soundtrope, proof of the passing of culture from one generation to the next (Low 74). This also points to the deep homology songbirds and humans would have once shared, long ago when single-celled eukaryotes reigned.

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Photo credit: Blake Lawrence, Contact Call, 2022, performance for Rivus: the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, Art After Dark: Queer Ecologies at The Waterhouse, Barangaroo. 

While an indexical view of language includes unconscious formations, humans draw attention to the conscious syntactical qualities of voice, speech and writing. The term syntax refers to a sequence from a being that communicates. If one were to translate this into biosemiotic language, the marks left by birds could be comparable to syntax, forming patterns of recognition. Salwiczek and Wickler (2004) specify birds' vocal repertoires, semantics and syntax.4 They note that rhythms of acoustic and optical gesture dialects — such as tail wagging, wing flapping, head and knee bends — work together, and together may correspond to human words, speech, or manual signs. By defining language too narrowly, as human, we run the risk of describing away "other" animal modalities. Notably, these gestures are symbolic, not indexical, but certainly signify a language.

While birdsong and human language both use sound sequences, birds can compose songs using two voices at once through their unique bipartite organ, the syrinx, which allows them to unite or separate two harmonically unrelated sounds (Salwiczek and Wickler 165). The compositional potential of two voices from one body is greater than a single human voice. From a wattlebird's morning contact call to an Australian magpie in song at sunset, two voices thread together to form a "combinatorial syntax". Artists produce human vocal patterns based on repetitions suggestive of syntax in bird calls, revealing their layered material quality. Catherine Clover's Pigeon Choir (2020) takes phonetic words from bird field guides — "coroocoo", "rackitty-coo", "oom" and "bucket-a-coo", "dru-oo-u" and "cooo" — to construct scores for participants to voice bird language, recalling the recursivity of bird vocalisations.5 Similarly, in the audio work Mimesis and the wee-loo (2021), artists Helen Hardess and Tiana Jeffries ask participants to voice avian calls such as "quardle", "oodle", "ardle", "wadle", and "doodle", recalling their rhythmic qualities.

As we know, language can be rich and varied, precise yet unstable. "Metaphors bleed;" Australian poet David Brooks suggests, "there is nothing but metaphor; language itself is metaphor".6 Metaphor, from the Greek meta (above) and pherein (to carry), is that which carries us above the literalness of life. Indeed, because birds literally carry seed in climactic space, so "much of the world's greenery has birds written all over it" (Low 203). Two thousand years ago, Aristotle understood such metaphoric drift when he proposed that the songs of isolated vocal learning birds might change over generations. Of his work describing the migrant condition, Carter suggests: "Sounds in-between can develop into languages ... What exists in-between, may be indexical rather than symbolic ... the sculpting in real time of a hollow, or place of shared coexistence" (Carter 42). Consider artist Alex Gawronski's work Untitled (Analogy), 2021, which he intended for site-specific display in a natural history cabinet, in which he plays on his own Polish surname by placing a note on its etymology before an Australian raven: Gawron (crow/raven) and -ski (of). As Mesoudi proposes, "both genetic and cultural evolution can be described as systems of inherited variation that change over time in response to processes such as selection, migration, and drift" (7853).

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Photo credit: Alex Gawronski, Untitled (Analogy), 2021, aluminium, digital print, pasteboard, timber, lacquer, 66 x 20.5 x 4 cm.

Returning to Foucault's idea of material language, every statement or mode of communication possesses a particular relationship with the liveliness of its landscape. Statements have a specific kind of life, a mode of existence proper to the field from which their signs enunciate. Indexical signs point to something material, vectoring towards what shaped them. Irving Massey contends, "meaning is created by the way words make contact with each other outside and beneath syntax" (Massey 148). Australia, the fulcrum from which bird language emanated, is where we turn to next.

Australian materiality shaping calls and song

Biologist Tim Low's book Where Song Began: Australia's Birds and How They Changed the World (2014) forges a new recognition of Australia as the origin of the world's songbirds and parrots. DNA testing has revealed that Australia provided the world with some of the most intelligent bird groups: "No one invokes centres of origin today, but when we look at songbirds, parrots and pigeons, we see that Australia behaved like one,"pumping"out birds to Asia, Africa and the Pacific" (Low 178). As such, Australian bird language is a nodal point of interpretation and translation, denoting the many migrating cultures of birds that spread across the globe, much like migrating peoples. This renewed interest in origins gives new life to deep excavations of the past. It calls us to focus on the present landscape too — to recognise that linguistic diversity and biodiversity are correlated. As van Dooren explains, the loss of the Hawaiian crow, or 'alalā, and the Hawaiian language unfold together (van Dooren 81). 

As I write this essay, squawks of cockatoos above me — squawks that seem to speak — remind me of our family pet cockatiel Grahame, who imitated the ringing of our telephone and said "hello". As I listen to ABC Radio National, Pagel's 2019 Glasgow Gifford Lecture comes over the airwaves: "parrots mimic, but they don't spontaneously generate and recombine words." Yet, a hundred voices above me are screaming notes — perhaps in indignance at the absurd suggestion that they are not generative — as confirmation that birds do spontaneously invent and recombine novel phrases in their communication signals. Pagel's words ring in my ears, "All animals communicate, but language is uniquely human ... We learn things through repetition ... words ... compositionality makes language a digital form of communication ... digital systems are better at variety and fidelity." But what we know of budgerigars, for instance, is that they speak in dialect. If separated from their group, they search for the dialect of their subgroup to reconnect. Low states that we can find the height of their ability in everyday homes, where "the words learned by pet parrots are the shared calls of the 'flock' they form with their owners" (113). This illustrates that the vocal repertoires of pet parrots change in response to their environment. Low also recalls a parrot that can spell by picking out letters (121).

Ornithologist Gisela Kaplan has shown that bird calls can be understood across continents, regardless of prior social exposure. Birds from the remote Fijian island of Taveuni, isolated from Australian magpies for over ten generations, understood recorded Australian magpie alarm calls signalling aerial danger (Kaplan and Rogers). While vocal learning may be based on a wide range of mimicry where new syllables are added and adapted, referential signalling, such as the alarm calls and gestures, do not change; they must be stable and consistent so that other birds can always understand their meaning. In the same experiment, Kaplan refers to her previous work in which she identified how magpies point to communicate danger using body posture, beak and gaze direction. Functionally, referential signalling is key to bird language.

Biosemiotic threads in the Australian landscape compellingly illustrate how closely the bodies of soils, trees and birds code language through indexical relationships. Vast forests of bird-pollinated eucalypts and paperbarks (Melaleuca) are the only of their kind in the world (Low 8). Thus, eucalypts have shaped the call of honeyeaters, such as wattlebirds and lorikeets, and other strong bird-nectar interactions have produced bird calls and songs across the continent. The presence of coevolution inscribed on the landscape is also noted by van Dooren: "A long and intimate history of coevolution lies within these embodied affinities that bind together avian and botanical lives" (76).

Yet, the prime enunciative factor that posits birds as nodes in a network of intricate language relationships begins with the sun. "Australia's ample sunshine and depleted soils encourage plants to produce more carbohydrates than they can use" and surplus sugar from photosynthesis is turned into nectar and fed to birds "in return for pollination" (Low 12). "Birds all over the world fight over flowers" (Low 10). The brush-tipped tongue of a honeyeater functions as a paintbrush pollinating in return for nectar, while feuding pollen-covered birds pollinate while they fight (Low), a metaphor for painting as a non-verbal language fuelled by light and symbiosis.7 Crucially, competition over the nectar from flowers has meant that parrots, songbirds and hummingbirds, the only birds that learn part of their calls, might be noisy but developed extra communication skills, while "the sounds of all other birds are innate" (Low 111). While the interdependencies between these nodes rely on the specialised interpretations of transmitted codes, the exchange of energy as the impetus is shared, relatable and observable outside the field of exchange, opening the way for interpretation and representation.

Deep homology and trees

In Meanjin, sulphur-crested cockatoos fly between trees in communication, like neurotransmitters gliding around in synapses before binding to dendrites where they crack nuts like the code of culture. Their calls echo across neighbourhoods and remind me of Carter's reflection: "echoes of echoes, meanings accumulating around the creative event itself ..." (Carter 6). Both cultural and genetic evolution are key to understanding bird language. Cultural evolution is "a Darwinian theory of cultural change", tracing inherited variations in response to migration and drift; for instance, the spatial and temporal changes in bird song dialects (Aplin 181). From a biological standpoint, parallels between birds and humans provide an opportunity to investigate their convergent evolutionary development over a gulf of half a billion years. While investigating analogous brain regions and neural pathways is a question of somewhat nuanced interplay, deep homology and deep culture can be identified.

From an evolutionary perspective, Lieberman (2000, quoted by Pepperberg 525) suggests that "communication structures in humans evolved from reptilian basal ganglion circuits." Further, he suggests that these circuits, responsible for specific patterns of motor activity yielding reward, are comparable to syntax sequences.8 This shared origin, sensitive to contextual inputs, presents the rhythms of communication and syntax as conjoined.

Convergent adaptions and deep homology can provide further insight into the cognitive and neural similarities between human language and birdsong. In addition to basal ganglia, we share the same brain pathways for vocal learning (Fitch and Mietchen 50). In birds, these pathways exist in regions of their cerebellums that control vocal learning and behaviour: cerebral song nuclei. Recent DNA analysis has shown that we also share the FoxP2 gene of complex vocal learning, a homology that "provides a powerful rationale for expanded comparative research using birdsong as a model system for human speech" (Fitch and Mietchen 52). Artist Melody Owen's Bird Song (2008) is a glass LED sculpture comprising 11 hanging strands, each 35 feet long, of blown glass elements, representing soundwaves as physical sound. Each is modelled after the waveform of a repeated bird song. The cascading light creates a series of spatial-temporal electric currents akin to "excited" brain pathways, computational networks, or neurophysiological movement. The massive gulf in our ancestry is conflated in a single pulse of light.

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Photo credit: Melody Owen, Bird Song Chandelier, 2008. Commissioned by The Nines Hotel in Portland. 30-foot chandelier concept and design for interior of spiral stairwell. Glass creation and installation by Ian Gilula and Elements Glass.

From a cognitive perspective, what we know of the neurons and neurotransmitters in our brains confirms the continuous link between the form of the branch and consciousness. Recent theories of language have brought to light the associative potential of a fluid structure of "treelets", linguistic branches that recombine in multiple ways. Cognitive scientist Gary Marcus theorises that human memory, and by extension language, appears to be based on cues, context or "content-addressable" data, retrievable through the suggestive potential of smaller collections of treelets (Marcus 31). Treelets, in lieu of whole trees of knowledge, are smaller chunks of meaning, fragments of an anticipated but never-realised whole.9 We might consider treelets as vestiges or traces; as Marcus suggests, they comprise "a clumsy patchwork of incomplete linguistic fragments" (31). In humans, combining these indexical fragments into a coherent language is a serendipitous art that cannot be quantified, reduced or predicted. The "terra incognita of language" prevails (Carter 4).

Structural affinities between treelets, broken twigs and branching letters offer a way to think about expanded bird-language systems. Low observed parrot chicks that sat in "branches that groaned in the wind like creaking doors" (109). In the mind, treelets metaphorically float around in watery heads, but in nests they lie dead and brittle. The nest might be considered a dry network of amnesia. A bird's nest woven of branches could exemplify the brain inside out; treelets of memories waiting for a new life perhaps, a reanimation of the dead. 

Van Dooren writes that "when crows swoop or construct their nests in new places, they are interjecting in the world in a way that is thickly material-semiotic, simultaneously bringing about possibilities for shared life and communicating something for those able to understand" (van Dooren 58). Sometimes these nests include things that are stolen; they "steal knowingly" (68), evidence that they possess "a theory of mind", he tells us (67). 

The world's oldest writing system, cuneiform, was developed by Sumerians around 3300 BCE when wedge-shaped pictograms were stylised to represent sounds. According to artist Ashley Eriksmoen, sticks and marks are pictographs — "trapped words".10 In her work We are all nest builders making meaning with sticks (2021), pictographic symbols made of salvaged wooden furniture find a new life harking back to early forms of language such as ideographs and hieroglyphs. In writing, we communicate through text, itself a word that links to tissue, to the fabric of life, "from Latin textus (style or texture of a work, literally 'thing woven'), from the past participle stem of texere (to weave, to join, fit together, braid, interweave, construct, fabricate, build)" (Etymonline).

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Photo credit: Ashley Eriksmoen, We are all Nest Builders Making Meaning with Sticks, 2021, wood, acrylic, milk paints and oil finish.

A combinatorial pulse

This reminds us to consider the combinatorial power of the pattern of birds with symmetrical bodies. The colours and forms found on birds are a form of encoded knowledge, a flag, camouflage or stunning pattern to attract a partner. Moreover, the wings of flying birds provide the ideal anatomy to embody meaning. Throughout history, the creation of meaning arises from a split, a union, or an oscillation between two factors. French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Hubermann recounts how, in the Middle Ages, every meaning in scripture acquired depth "by dividing, by splitting in two: the letter and the spirit, the surface and the underside" (Didi-Hubermann 37).11

Above the recycling facility in Wollongong, I've watched hundreds of seagulls shift in a choreographed dance, turning angles, weaving facets of light and dark, their wings, under and over, flashing like cards from a hidden deck, or the recto and verso of blades of grass, vibrating in the wind. Here, where wings are in constant exchange and correlation, we can think of their bodies as belonging to a field of gestural vectors, pointing to the passage of meaning and time. The symbolism they bring into our human worlds corresponds to Foucault's coordinates of dream through spatial polarities in the landscape: the alternation of light and dark; the horizontal axis of near and far; and the vertical axis of ascent and fall.12 In paintings, birds lend form to the crystalline; they shimmer and sparkle across the sea or become cubist facets offering multiple perspectives, like the frontiers of language, which are never clear cut. Birds are also nodes within conceptual networks — like language, they are variable and relative.

As already noted, birds can also put "digital" movement to exquisite use, communicating through non-verbal means. Low tells us that Queensland palm cockatoos are percussionists — they make tools: "small branches are severed and trimmed of bark to make drumsticks, with which the males, to proclaim their territories, proceed from tree to hollow tree pounding out messages up to 100 beats long" (Low 112).13 Then again, in Bernie Krauss's artwork The Great Animal Orchestra (2016), we can hear a recording of "the reverberant and rapid hammering of a number of pileated woodpeckers on different height tree stumps, each generating its own musical pitch (kind of like a natural xylophone)". Could these beats contain a logic, like computational systems and recursion? Whether through an inherently bipartite voice or a beating rhythm, birds have the means to communicate using the binary.

Biosemiotic rhythms are arguably digital, a pulse considered through art historian Rosalind Krauss's analysis of modernist vision. In the 1960s, modernist art was founded on a theory of vision that was separated from the domain of corporeal experience. Krauss stated, "What I'd like to broach here is the issue of a rhythm, or beat, or pulse — a kind of throb of on/off on/off on/off on/off — which, in itself, acts against the stability of visual space in a way that is destructive and devolutionary" (Krauss 36). Krauss showed how surrealist art suggested a rhythm that connected to the body14, an eroticised vision in opposition to the puritanically repressive "abstracted" notion of vision. The beat of desire invariably calls to mind other rhythmic associations, like circuits that throb over the internet, echoing the Jacquard loom that automated weaving and led to the first punch-card computer.

In the natural world, blocks of colour — a visual language — may help flocks of budgerigars coordinate rapid travel, and produce "social harmony through pleasure, much like colours on human clothes" (Low 113). This analogy can be seen in German artist Matthias Garff's bird costumes. Recently, I saw a flash in the grass — like a large fan had reflected blue-silver from the sea. I had surprised a nest-building Australian satin bowerbird. The high key reflectance pushed blue to the limit, in contrast to its otherwise blue-black plumage. Not all bird colours are visible to our eyes; for instance, courting budgerigars have cheek patches that reflect UV light (Low 113). If aspects of bird perception and messaging are beyond our ken, other "extra-sensory" modes of communication may also be out of sight. Indeed, our words can be defined in terms of an arrangement of letters. However, if we reorient the relationship between words and writing to symbols that give us access, meaning may come forth differently, perhaps through a language imperceivable to us. 


Australia is the land on which bird language was formed by the causal power of matter. Current definitions of language crystallise our hierarchical relationship to non-human animals. An expanded view of language, including analogue and digital communications, connotes a broader concern with the agency of birds and non-human presences. This conception of language allows us to sense the material and indexical as communicating in the biological world, exemplifying liveliness and community. Shedding light on the effect of the biosphere on birds and the formation of a language is of critical importance now to conserve diverse human languages and neural diversity.

If we look, listen and feel hard enough, there are traces of language everywhere. But, as I have shown, the differently transmitted codes, songs and vectorial fields of Australian birds gesture to a vital category of language that reminds us of Foucault's question, "Is not discourse, in its most profound determination, a 'trace'?" (2010 232). As I conclude this essay, I can hear the mournful cries of yellow-tailed black cockatoos feeding in she-oaks. They bring powerful symbolism into a world that feels like it is also concluding. Their melancholy codes are based in deep time. Like a memento mori, they remind us to pay attention to their beat, and the languages of other subjective worlds collapsing around us.

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Salwiczek, Lucie H., and Wolfgang Wickler. "Birdsong: An Evolutionary Parallel to Human Language." Semiotica, vol. 151, no. 151, Walter de Gruyter GmbH and Co. KG, 2004, pp. 163-82.

Wheeler, Wendy. "Postscript on Biosemiotics: Reading Beyond Words and Ecocriticism." Earthographies: Ecocriticism and Culture. Spec. issue of New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, no. 64, Spring 2008, pp. 137-54.


  1. Albeit somewhat in vain, since the result is beyond logical analysis in the primordial, primaeval world. 

  2. Beethoven's Pastrol Symphony, Joseph Haydn's The Seasons and Messiaen's Reveil des Oiseaux (Low 77). 

  3. American scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce's writings on semiotics, the philosophical study of signs. 

  4. "In birds, morphemes are called syllables; ordered sets of syllables may form song phrases ... Syntactic rules govern the combination of syllables, of phrases and sometimes also a sequence of song types to form a complex song" (Salwiczek and Wickler 166). 

  5. Select artworks by Australian artists featured in this essay were originally shown in the pop-up exhibition that accompanied the Birds and Language Conference, University of Sydney webinar (19-20 August 2021). 

  6. Author's notes from David Brooks in a pre-recorded interview, Australian Animals Studies Group, Life in the Anthropocene Conference, University of Sydney Law School, 8-9 July 2013. 

  7. See my painting The brush-tipped tongue of a honeyeater functions the same way as a paint brush 2018 and my essay Kelly, Madeleine, 'Liveliness: Can sympoietic painting save forms of life?' ACUADS Conference 2020: Crisis and Resilience: art and design looks ahead. Australia: Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools, 2020. 1-13. 

  8. Parallels between bird and human vocal communication as evolving from shared motor pathways propose structures co-opted for either song learning and song decoding or hominid language. 

  9. The functionalist theory of the mind maps trees into addressable locations, where neurons equate to hardware and memories are programs that run along them. 

  10. Ashley Eriksmoen "Linear Semiosis", paper presented at the Birds and Language Conference, University of Sydney webinar (19-20 August 2021). 

  11. Pagel claims that the compositionality of human language makes it a digital form of communication — words are either on or off — yet, as I have shown, birds that point or speak in dialect engage in digital communication. Bird claw prints, a material imprint, are an analogue trace of an appendage that communicates, grasps and thinks. When taken as a series, such prints present the binary between left and right, a dialectic exchange between two points of contact, body and land. As Carter reminisces, bird calls are paths: "like arrows through the air, they provided flight directions" (Carter 17). Original italics. 

  12. In "Dream, Imagination and Existence" (1993), the coordinates of dream yield a distinctive conception of literary genres, "an anthropology of art", the three modes of epic, lyric and tragic. 

  13. Big nuts from the small tree Grevillia glauca are used by palm cockatoos for percussion. 

  14. This alternative notion of art ultimately celebrated "diastolic" and "systolic" rhythms in the poststructuralist thought of Gilles Deleuze.