What Birders Don’t See

Rather than studying birds—and birders—in isolation, the time has come to see both as linked to the crises of racism and climate change.

Successful birders learn not to call attention to themselves. Many creatures are easily startled, so good birders must become good watchers and listeners. They wake up early, dress in drab colors, and stay still enough to fade into the background, to see without being seen. Or so many of us bird lovers like to think.

This fantasy of shared invisibility was shattered very publicly this summer, in a viral video showing dog walker Amy Cooper (who is white) calling the police on birder Christian Cooper (who is Black). The video testified to the ways racism colors even spaces and activities commonly supposed to be devoted to nature and removed from politics. The footage appeared concurrently with the murder of George Floyd and the eruption of Black Lives Matter protests across the country. And the response was swift.

Amy Cooper lost her job and temporarily surrendered her dog. In the days that followed the incident, a coalition of Black birders launched Black Birders Week, an online event spotlighting the expertise of Black birders and scientists. This response helped foreground the often overlooked diversity of bird lovers, even as it drove home the disproportionate risks some birders brave in order to observe birds, to protect them, and to educate others.

This explosion of attention to the politics of birding coincided with the publication of two books that try, in different ways, to explain humans’ attachment to these flying dinosaurs we call birds. What It’s Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley, and The Bird Way, by Jennifer Ackerman, are instructive because they show two major bird advocates reaching beyond the boundaries of their chosen genres, trying to capture aspects of the human fascination with birds that these genres—field guides and science journalism, respectively—tend to leave out. Each book is an impressive achievement in its own right. In light of this summer’s events, however, it is hard not to notice the social and political issues that even these unconventional works continue to omit.

A full understanding of humans’ fascination with birds requires more than a lively recitation of scientific findings and their implications for how we relate to these creatures. It requires thinking carefully about who “we” are in the first place, and about how the conventions of popular nature writing cater to a comparatively narrow, homogeneous audience. In learning to love and value the diversity of birds, birders have been too quick to discount the significance of diversity at the other end of the binoculars.

Most field guides favored by birders are useful at the expense of being interesting. They feature capsule illustrations of species alongside notes about appearance and behavior, all geared toward aiding readers in telling one bird from another. They are typically small enough to carry in a backpack or jacket pocket. What field guides fail to do is promote interest in creatures like birds in the first place. They presuppose readers who want to know about the nonhuman world, and they further assume that what those readers want is to distinguish between species just well enough to check sightings off a list.

The most prominent field-guide author (and natural illustrator) of our time is, arguably, David Allen Sibley. What makes his new book so interesting is the way it shows the acclaimed naturalist chafing against the constraints of the field guide itself, suggesting that even Sibley is growing weary of the traditional format. In the book’s preface, Sibley explains how he repeatedly reimagined both the audience and the genre of his work-in-progress to figure out what introducing someone to birds might mean—and who exactly might be in need of such an introduction.1

The only thing that remained stable across these iterations was Sibley’s conviction that the standard field guide would not fly. “My plan to make this volume more than an identification guide,” he writes, “led to the idea of adding short essays about some of the more interesting and amazing things birds do, to try to give readers a deeper appreciation of the birds they are identifying.” The title of the book reflects his hope that What It’s Like to Be a Bird goes beyond a standard field guide and, instead, conveys the birds’ inner experiences.

It doesn’t—but the book is a magisterial work nonetheless. With the heft and production value of a coffee table book, What It’s Like to Be a Bird is laced with Sibley’s beautiful, informative illustrations of birds in action. These paintings and drawings are supplemented by snippets of writing that Sibley calls “essays,” but that might better be described as surprising tidbits backed by science. These texts answer a plethora of questions many people might never think to ask: How can one determine the age of a feather? Why do birds’ naked feet almost never freeze? How did an American bird come to be named turkey? Who would win an actual race between a roadrunner and a coyote?

The field-guide format—for all its benefits—inhibits inquiry, imagination, and interspecies attachment.

Sibley’s answers do more than educate; they whet curiosity about other creatures. His book reminds us how to ask the kinds of questions that come naturally to children, but that field guides and textbooks train us to brush aside in favor of scientific data about morphology, diet, abundance, and breeding habits.

In that sense, What It’s Like to Be a Bird achieves its aim of surpassing other field guides. It not only familiarizes audiences with species; it teaches them enough to promote lasting interest and engagement.

Yet these innovations are still shoehorned into a format borrowed from the guides that made Sibley’s name. The bulk of the book consists of two-page spreads loosely arranged by scientific classification, most of them devoted to a taxonomic genus or family. The information peppering the right-hand pages rarely applies to only one bird group, however, and it often elaborates on facts featured in other sections. Sibley tries to solve this organizational problem by inserting notes pointing to related pages. This strategy lends the book a scattered, hypertextual feel: a reader interested in the evolution and function of feathers, for example, is advised to jump from a side-panel on the “Egrets” spread (at page 33) to entries on “Dabbling Ducks” (page 11), before moving on to details on pages devoted to “Ravens” (107), “More Owls” (65), and “More Flycatchers” (97).

The result is a messy but deeply rewarding reading experience, albeit one that rarely offers what its title promises: some glimpse into “what it’s like to be a bird.” Perhaps—as Thomas Nagel famously suggested in his 1974 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”—that experience will be forever inaccessible.

Still, the kind of information Sibley privileges tends to overlook issues of birds’ internal experience. There are a few exceptions, such as the fascinating revelation that birds have balance sensors in both their heads and their hips, implying very different experiences of motion and bodily position than humans have. Mostly, though, Sibley shies away from the complexity of cognition for less speculative, more soundly scientific questions of feeding, flying, and breeding. In this, too, Sibley’s tome betrays its origins, inadvertently demonstrating how the field-guide format—for all its benefits—inhibits inquiry, imagination, and interspecies attachment. If Sibley is so focused on getting birds objectively right that he rarely makes room for their subjective experiences, he leaves out the subjectivities of the humans watching them entirely.


Listen to the Birds

By Priscilla Wald

When inhibitions such as Sibley’s are lifted, the inner lives of birds can capture the imagination, as bestselling science writer Jennifer Ackerman shows in The Bird Way. Ackerman’s preferred method is to approach birds not in isolation, but through conversations and field trips with the scientists who study them. Because she reaches beyond scientific facts to the conversation and experiences of the humans who produce them, Ackerman does a far more thorough job than Sibley at revealing why birds are so fascinating.

Gathering testimonials from scientists allows Ackerman to show just how much time researchers spend engaging in the rich, imaginative process of thinking about avian experience—the very process Sibley often shies away from. For example, while both Sibley and Ackerman mention that birds see ultraviolet light, only Ackerman expands on what this experience might be like. “Birds see a massive spectrum of color our brains are simply incapable of processing,” she explains, because overlaying UV light onto the spectrum visible to humans produces distinct hues that are inconceivable to us.

When Ackerman interviews sensory ecologist Mary Caswell Stoddard to understand these findings, Stoddard tellingly turns to metaphor to clarify their implications. “It’s not simply human vision plus some purplish UV colors. It’s a complete reimagining of the color experience,” Stoddard says. A bird trying to convey its visual experience to us would struggle the same way we would struggle “to explain to someone who has only watched black-and-white television what color TV is like.”

Here and elsewhere, the power of Ackerman’s writing lies in the way she peers beyond seemingly straightforward scientific insights to consider how such insights matter. And she does so not, like Sibley, by trying to repackage facts into a more compelling format, but, instead, by relating them to the lived experiences of birds and bird lovers alike.

Ackerman’s strategy provides valuable glimpses into how scientific knowledge is produced and, moreover, what is overlooked by the disciplinary stipulations of that science. A chapter on “play” details not only the variety of playful behaviors birds display, but also the fascination of watching play—and the difficulty of expressing common knowledge about play within a strict scientific framework. “We scientists are not supposed to say [it],” the cognitive zoologist Mathias Osvath confesses at one point, “but almost every one of us—between the papers, so to speak—would agree that animals we see playing are having fun, and that fun can be its own powerful reward.”

These behind-the-scenes confessionals remind us that scientific knowledge is created by human beings. People, that is, whose experiences and beliefs shape their research, and whose research, in turn, leads to beliefs they sometimes have to suppress when speaking scientifically.

Humans may create environmental issues, but responsibility for them is not evenly distributed.

In different ways, then, Sibley and Ackerman both demonstrate how bird lovers are becoming self-conscious about the power that social conventions exert over what counts as significant knowledge about the natural world. Sibley wishes to move beyond the constraints of the field-guide format; Ackerman strives to peek beneath the sometimes stodgy imperatives of academic rigor. Yet, for all their fruitful attempts to move past such social constraints, both these works remain marked by silences around issues of racial and social justice—silences that have become more palpable in light of this summer’s occurrences.

Like the field guides it loosely imitates, Sibley’s volume mostly treats the nonhuman world as an apolitical space. The only politics in the book take the form of a simplified environmentalism, which treats humanity as an undifferentiated mass responsible for threats to bird life, such as “habitat loss … house cats, window collisions, pesticide use, and climate change.”

Humans may create these issues, but responsibility for them is not evenly distributed. As environmental-justice advocates have long argued, some people benefit from these activities while others absorb their costs.

To take just one example, the same pesticides that kill birds also sicken and debilitate farmworkers, many of them immigrants and people of color. The field-guide model that informs Sibley’s book isolates avian life in a way that excludes these socioeconomic contexts—to the detriment of birds and people alike. After all, there is a profound sense in which agricultural workers—people who are exposed to pesticides as they migrate to survive—understand “what it is like to be a bird” better than most ornithologists ever will.

Staying mum about such relationships gives a skewed picture of how human and bird lives relate to one another. In downplaying interspecies bonds, these silences obscure the kinds of unexpected alliances that might make it easier to realize a richer, safer world for everyone.


What Is It Like to Be an Elephant?

By Matt Margini

Ackerman’s book is slightly more thoughtful in this regard. She acknowledges that cultural assumptions and power structures distort scientific understandings of the natural world, and she uses her own writing to counteract some of these biases.

Much of The Bird Way is devoted to Australian species, as a corrective to the misguided tradition of assuming that North American and European species are the best representatives of universal bird behavior. Ackerman also delights in diversity when it manifests in bird behaviors and social structures, giving enthusiastic accounts of the youth-oriented communities of New Zealand kea, say, or the elaborate nest-building and egg-tending behaviors of the male Australian brushturkey.

Yet Ackerman’s explicit discussion of diversity stops at the species line. She is mostly quiet on issues of racial and cultural difference in the human communities she engages to understand these animals.

This silence is all the more surprising given Ackerman’s acknowledgment of the need for ornithologists to overcome other forms of narrowmindedness—including “sensory prejudices … geographic bias … [and] gender bias”—to better understand birds. The race of the researchers she interviews is not something she addresses, so the only legible people of color who appear in the text are natives of Africa or Australia. The Bird Way glances at the evidently intimate knowledge of birds possessed by these peoples, but only in the form of colorful anecdotes that act as segues to the work of pedigreed academics.

So, while one chapter opens with a tantalizing description of the collaborative honey hunting conducted by the Yao people of Mozambique and the birds known as greater honeyguides, the text focuses on the Cambridge researchers who have recorded and studied the Yao’s calls. It leaves the Yao perspective on this relationship totally unexplored.

After all that has happened this summer, the failure of these otherwise expansive works to acknowledge that race and ethnicity shape our relationships with other animals is striking. Even within a relatively strict field-guide layout of the sort Sibley favors, it is possible to allocate space to the range of communities drawn to birds and the kinds of knowledge fostered by such attachments. It would be refreshing to open this sort of book and find anecdotes detailing what ravens have meant to the peoples of the Pacific Northwest, for example, or how rooftop pigeon flying has helped forge interracial, intergenerational, and interspecies bonds in American cities. The looser essayistic format of Ackerman’s book would allow for even deeper consideration of these kinds of issues, if she gave herself permission to dig into them.

If such inclusions seem out of place in mainstream field guides and science communication, that is the point. At a time when many marginalized voices are speaking frankly about the problematic culture of science itself, breaking away from such unspoken protocols makes it possible to highlight the diversity of ways human beings have made inroads into the avian psyche.

Greater awareness of that diversity has the potential to promote appreciation for birds in a much wider audience. It also has the potential to advance our understanding of the many kinds of people, and many kinds of knowledge, participating in our relationships with these creatures—enabling us to better grasp not just the lives of birds, but also the surprising ways they connect us to one another.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcusicon

  1. As Sibley explains in the preface, What It’s Like to Be a Bird took 15 years to write because he could never quite decide what the book was. “My original idea … was to produce a bird guide for kids,” he writes. Over time, the project became “a bird guide for beginners of any age. But … the concept of a ‘simplified’ guide never clicked for me. Instead, I wanted to make it a broader introduction to birds.”
Featured image: A Black-Headed Gull in St James’s Park, London, England (detail) (2006). Photograph by Diliff / Wikimedia Commons