Birdwatching with Birds Watching

Exploring human-animal relations with the William and Mary Bird Club

By Alice Palfreyman (Spring 2022)

Walking through the Wildflower Refuge on the William and Mary campus, I hear some excitement from the Bird Club crowd in front of me as we turn the corner. Peering through my binoculars, I see exactly what everyone is raving about. A barred owl. Perched in the magnolia tree, peacefully sleeping in the branches. It’s quite hidden between the foliage, and its brown feathers camouflage it into the tree trunk. As everyone gathers around to observe, Tara urges us to move aside. She tells us to move away from the tree and onto the street; we don’t want to attract crows.

A barred owl perched on a branch. Image by Ivan Munkres, Bird Club member.

This surprises me, as I wonder why we would attract crows? What about a group of birdwatchers would draw them in? How would they know that we were watching an owl, and not some other creature? What exactly was being communicated here, between the birds and the birdwatchers? What does this tell us about the relationships between humans and animals? Between humans and nature? In an attempt to learn more about human-nature relations, I decided to look into the Bird Club at the College of William and Mary. This student-run club of birdwatchers and bird enthusiasts welcomed me into one of their weekly bird walks through campus. I was also lucky enough to speak with the President of the Bird Club, Tara, to explore some of my questions even further. Despite knowing nothing about birds or birding (observing birds as a hobby), my fellow students welcomed me into the club, leading to some fun birdwatching and interesting conversations. Embarking on this bird walk led the way to answer my questions about human-animal communications and relations, and how this influences multispecies communities.

Bodies speak for themselves

When Tara asked us to step away from the tree to avoid attracting the crows to the owl, I wondered what was being communicated at that exact moment? It had simply never occurred to me that any other animal would be aware of us and what we were doing, never mind what that could mean to them. The idea of communicating with other animals, especially wild animals like crows, was new to me – we don’t speak the same language, and we weren’t trying to tell the crows anything, so how would we be able to communicate in the first place?

But communication is not simply speaking the same language, and it does not even have to be an intentional act. The story of Hans the horse shows exactly this. Hans fostered great intrigue as he was able to answer simple mathematical equations asked by trainers. Many questioned how he did this. Was he an exceptional genius? Had he learnt how to count? Was he just trained to do a trick to make money for the trainers (Despret 2004: 111-113)?

The answer was subconscious bodily movements from the questioner, indicating that Hans had counted up to the right number. Hans had learnt these movements to be confirmation that he had reached the correct answer (Ibid.: 113). Despret argues that Hans is a prime example of the ways in which human and non-human bodies can speak to each other (Ibid.: 114). In this case, the Bird Club birdwatchers are communicating to the crows, through their bodies and their behaviour, that there is something worth looking at in the tree. But how do they know?

Learning the cues

I turned to Tara to answer this question for me, to which she revealed some very interesting information which further developed my ideas on human-animal relations.

“Birds are way more intelligent than people
give them credit for, and so are most creatures.
If they see a group of people and we’re all like
looking at something, they’re going to look at it too.”

Telling me that birds are much smarter than we may think, she explains that the crows may have learnt from past experience that a group of birdwatchers gathering around that area suggests that there is an owl. People watching an owl may get too close and scare the owl from the tree, causing it to fly away – this is flushing an owl. If this has happened before, and a crow has witnessed that, they would be able to make the connection that birdwatchers indicate an owl could be flushed from that tree. Much like Hans, the crows have the capacity to learn what human behaviours mean and engage in these behaviours in ways which fit their needs and wants (Despret 2004: 116).

Barred owl in a tree. Image by Katie Kauppi, Bird Club member.

Knowing an owl is there, the crows would be ready to attack if the owl did fly out of the tree, as an attempt to protect their young from the owl. In fact, during one of my bird observations, I witnessed the owl flying out of that very tree and be chased and attacked by two crows. It was an intense moment, watching from the library 2nd floor window, feeling both scared for the owl, helpless from afar, and eventually relief as the owl managed to get away. This encounter, between myself and the birds, produced affect – the complex emotions felt through an interaction with another being which can drive the desire to experience further encounters (Parreñas 2012: 680). This visceral reaction to the attack on the owl drew me even further into birdwatching, making me feel more connected to the owl and the crows.

Having a deep connection with birds through affect is an important aspect of human-animal relations. These relationships, built by activities such as birdwatching, show just how crucial it is to be aware of how our actions impact birds and their lives.

The Ethics of Birding

To Tara, avoiding attracting crows to the owl was important so as not to put the life of the owl at risk for the sake of Bird Club. She tells me about a crucial aspect of birdwatching: Birding Ethics. Finding the balance between not disturbing the birds and getting to catch a glimpse to observe and learn more about them is a tricky one. Tara explains the importance of respecting each bird’s space – physical and aural. Some birds can be attracted by playing or mimicking bird calls but this could be incredibly disturbing to an owl sleeping during the day. And getting close to a bird may be fine for more social creatures such as chickadees, but less so for more reserved animals.

Part of this caution surrounding the ethics of birdwatching can be attributed to the attitudes and special relationship that Bird Club members have with animals and the environment. Tara tells me that a uniting aspect of Bird Club is that all of the members “recognize” the environment. They have a hyperawareness of their surroundings that comes with birdwatching, and when everyone has this awareness, it creates a more interesting and dynamic experience while birding together.

“They recognize that it’s important and they also just see. Like Bird Club members just see so much. It’s amazing. They’re just so aware of their surroundings because when you watch birds, you get much more aware.” Tara

But not only does this recognition allow Bird Club members to spot more animals, or be more attentive to the birds, but it also makes them a crucial part of the ecology in which they birdwatch. Birds are great indicators of biodiversity and impacts on the ecosystem and being attentive to birds means being attentive to these signals (D’Avella, 2018: 246). This allows for people to be more consciousness of their cohabitation with birds and humans can recognise when their actions will have a negative impact on birds and the environment, therefore having a more mindful attitude towards the ecosystems in which they are also a part (Ibid.). Recognition in Bird Club is key to building relationships with birds and the surrounding environment while birding.

Birdwatching and Multispecies Communities

We can see how birdwatchers’ awareness of birds, and the birds’ awareness of birdwatchers impact the actions and interactions they have with each other, their own species, and the surrounding environment. This is key to challenging the understanding of animals and nature as being passive to human actions (Aisher & Damondaran, 2016). It is clear that humans, animals, and the environment are deeply interconnected and influenced by one another, allowing for powerful interactions with each other through practices such as birdwatching. Recognizing this connection is important to the relationship between humans and animals within a multispecies community.

During my time with Bird Club, I was able to learn so much from members and birdwatching that I had never known or even considered before. Not only did I come away from the bird walk being able to recognise so many more types of birds, but I also became more aware of the birds around me, what they were doing, and how my actions could affect them. The lessons I have learnt through Bird Club are not limited to my new feathered friends, but also to the environment and animals in general. I can now recognize how embedded I am in multispecies communities – from interacting with birds, turtles, squirrels, flowers, and trees, I know that I will have an impact on them, and they will have an impact on me.

Organizations such as Bird Club make a positive impact on our multispecies communities through finding this recognition and fostering deep, meaningful connections between humans and non-humans. It is my hope that everyone can experience the joy of a bird walk filled with owls, sparrows, chickadees and even the odd turtle.

Works Cited

Aisher, A. & V. Damodaran. 2016. Introduction: Human-nature Interactions through a Multispecies Lens. In Conservation and Society 14:4, 293-304.

D’Avella, N. 2018. How to Care for a Park with Birds: Birdwatchers’ Ecologies in Buenos Aires. In Living with Animals (eds) N. Porter & I. Gershon, 236-248. New York: Cornell University Press.

Despret, V. 2004. The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis. In Body & Society 10:2-3, 111-134.

Parreñas, J.S. 2012. Producing affect: Transnational volunteerism in a Malaysian orangutan rehabilitation center. In American Ethnologist 39:4, 673-687.

All images used with photographer’s consent. Real names used with consent from interlocutors. Special thanks to the Bird Club of William & Mary, and Tara Malloy, for their knowledge and time.

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