Die Welt interview: “Humanity is poorer for the death of birds”

This interview appeared in the German newspaper Die Welt on Saturday 9 June 2018. The interview with Céline Lauer was published in German. You can read the German version here. My (very rough) English translation is below.

Humanity is poorer for the death of birds

Thom van Dooren believes that our humanity would fundamentally change without birds. A conversation about purifying vultures, divine owls, and the touching nature of crows.

Humanity is good at documenting – and even better at ignoring. At least this is what is suggested by our handling of bird life. For years, researchers have been collecting data showing that avian populations worldwide are shrinking. But even these findings have done little to slow the decline. The most recent negative records come from Germany: the count of Der Naturschutzbund has averaged just under 34 birds per garden this year – almost one bird less than the long-term average. Even more seriously, seven of the 15 most common species have appeared in gardens at their lowest ever levels, including such popular birds as the blackbird, magpie, and blue tit. It seems paradoxical: why do we know so much about this problem – and do so little about it?
Because this data is the wrong kind of information, Thom van Dooren says: “Numbers mean very little to most people. Including me. “Van Dooren is an Australian anthropologist and environmental philosopher. He has been researching the disappearance of birds for about fifteen years, but does not record his findings in statistics, rather in stories. Stories that might shake up our understandings and show just how profoundly the dying of birds affects our human being – far beyond the ecological consequences.


DIE WELT: How did you come to the topic of bird decline?

THOM VAN DOOREN: It was really through learning about the decline of vultures in India. As these birds have disappeared, the animal carcasses that they once ate have been left to dogs and rats, whose populations have multiplied and play a role in the spread of diseases like rabies. Alongside this impact, the funerary system of the Parsee community in Mumbai—who once left their dead to be consumed by vultures—has also been severely impacted, alongside their cultural identity. But the decline of vultures has also had economic consequences for some, like those people who used to collect cattle bones cleaned by the vultures to sell them to the fertilizer industry. Now their livelihoods are at risk. So, this example highlighted for me some of the many ways in which humanity is becoming poorer through the death of birds.

India, however, is far away. Why should this example concern us?
In many parts of the world birds are often the only part of the animal world with which the majority of the urban population ever come into contact – even in a place like Germany. In addition, this example illustrates a more general situation: all over the world the decline of endangered species impacts on people’s lives and cultures, but also on broader environment.

Can you provide an example?
In Hawai‘i, there was a long tradition of people catching native birds to make capes for nobles from their feathers. The iconic yellow cape of King Kamehameha I, required about 60,000 feathers from the Mamo, whose plumage was predominantly black with just a few yellow patches [this cape is on display in the Bishop Museum, Honolulu]. The Mamo is extinct today, like many other terrestrial Hawaiian birds; in addition, almost all of Hawai’i’s reamining endemic bird species are endangered. From a cultural point of view, however, these birds—both extinct and endangered—are still enormously important in Kānaka Maoli (native Hawiian) culture; they occur in stories, in hula dances, in songs and chants. [Importantly, the decline of the mamo, like other Hawaiian forest birds, was primarily the result of habitat loss and introduced diseases after the arrival of European and other settler-colonial peoples—not feather collecting].

So the cultural significance of birds is often related to their beauty?
That is certainly one of the reasons. Again in Hawai’i, some birds are also valued for religious reasons: for example, the pueo (owl), the ‘io (hawk), and the i‘iwi (a honeycreeper) are all important Aumakua, or family deities.

What is the situation in Western societies – what relationship do we have to birds?
I’ve conducted research on birds in Hawai‘i, India, Australia and Oceania. In industrialized Western societies, it seems to me that many people’s relationships with birds are shaped in large part by their particular circumstances: that is, where and how a person grew up, which animals they had, or have, access to, and in what contexts.

Recently, there has been a trend towards bird watching: People meet after work to observe birds together – even in Germany. Do you think this is a positive development?
Any activity that encourages people to pay close attention to birds is probably a good thing. Over the course of my research I have consistently found that every species I’ve studied ended up being much more interesting than I could have anticipated. [Curiosity, attending, are important avenues into understanding and care.]. This is why I believe that such activities are generally positive; even if people don’t end up becoming active themselves in conservation but prefer to just watch birds.

Or listen: There are now dozens of apps that allow you to load birdsong on your smartphone. What does that tell us about ourselves?
Certainly, some people have a strong desire to hear and experience birds – often the particular birds that they grew up hearing. I think that many people feel connected to their homes when they see or hear birds. I know this from my own experience: When I travel, I often listen to recordings of common Australian birds like our magpies—their songs remind me of home.

Is there a culture that you find especially bird-friendly?
I wish there was a whole society that could be indetified as bird-lovers in this way. But I don’t think such a thing really exists. In all of the places that I have done research, there are people who are passionate about birds and their conservation, and others who do not care or even see particular birds as a nuisance or pest. On prominent example around the world, including in Germany, is the pigeon that in the eyes of many people is a source of pollution and disease.

But at least there is agreement amongst bird-lovers?
No. Even people who take care of birds do so for very different reasons. Some people want to save only endangered species – and are willing to trap and kill predators of these birds and their eggs. For example, as part of avian protection programs, rats and feral cats, but also mongooses, weasels and possums, are targeted. In New Zealand, entire islands have been completely freed of introduced predators to (re)introduce endangered birds. Species like the kakapo and the kiwi have been beneficiaries of these kinds of conservation efforts. On the other hand, other animal lovers are primarily concerned with caring for individual animals – whether they are endangered and “native” or not. These kinds of differences can make the whole thing quite complicated.

The results of recent censuses in this country are alarming. Nevertheless, the decline of birds seems to us Germans to continue.
Sadly, that applies to most environmental problems. There are a lot of reasons why people do not always act in appropriate ways with regard to the environment. Perhaps it is because so many of us live in cities, dependent on industrialized food production, distanced from these kinds of declines and their impacts. This does not necessarily mean that we do not care – but perhaps that the systems in which we live make it very difficult for us to act on those cares.

And you believe that stories like that of the Indian vultures can do something to address this kind of ignorance?
Yes. Of course, stories don’t work on all people in the same ways. For example, in other work that I have done I’ve written about albatrosses. These birds are really incredible – I was particularly fascinated by the work they do to raise a single chick. Imagine: parents fling back and forth, month after month, to collect fish for their chick. Now, if you think about the fact that every generation, over millions of years, has made this immense effort; this is the work that holds this species in the world. [These kinds of evolutionary stories are, I think, another of the many ways in which we might explore the significance of extinction: what it means and why it matters.]

Which type of bird means a lot to you?
Lately I have been quite preoccupied with crows; my latest book is about them. These birds are loved by many but hated by others – for all sorts of reasons: because they caw loudly, because they make a mess, because they are suspected of causing declines in songbird populations (even though there is no real evidence for it), or perhaps just because they are associated with death and decay.

Since when do crows count as endangered bird species?
There are many different crow species worldwide. Most of them have adapted well to people and to changing environments; but some have not. The Hawaiian crow [‘alalā], for example, is a forest bird that can has not done well in populated areas. In Hawai‘i, as the forests were cleared and predators and diseases arrived, this species began to decline until by the early 2000s they were extinct in the wild; surviving only in captivity. So, while in Hawai’i (some) people are passionately trying to conserve this crow, in many other parts of the worlds very similar birds, other crow species, are being actively targeted and killed.

Are you saying that crows are hunted?
Certainly, in many places, legally or illegally, mostly by annoyed local people or hunters – including in Germany. A prominent recent example in Europe was the effort to eradicate roughly 40 House crows [Corvus splendens] in the town of Hoek van Holland in the Netherlands: this population consists of the descendants of a few birds who likely stowed away on cargo ships arriving in the Port of Rotterdam. Although they had lived there for decades, a few years ago local authorities began to fear that they might begin to spread out to other parts of Europe. Since then, the order was given to eradicate them.

This sounds dramatic. But what exactly touches you so much about these animals?
For five years, I have moved between these worlds where crows are variously protected and killed. Although they are different species of crows, all of these birds have remarkably similar emotional and cognitive lives: crows are incredibly intelligent and social. Sometimes they are clearly listening and interacting with us. It was very interesting for me to experience this movement between sites of care and killing – and to pay attention to the often anthropocentric criteria with which [certain] people get to decide who lives and who dies.

Do you sometimes imagine what a world without birds would look like?
I don’t think that any of us can really imagine such a world. The incredible ecological, economic, cultural, and personal consequences of the disappearance of all of the world’s birds is impossible to really comprehend. I only know that our world would be dramatically different. But the very fact that people think they know what life would be like without birds, that they think they can imagine such a dramatically altered world – perhaps a place largely unchanged, just missing the sight and sound of feathered beings moving through the sky – is perhaps a key part of our problem.

The person
Thom van Dooren, 38, is an anthropologist and environmental philosopher. The Australian teaches and researches in the interdisciplinary Environmental Humanities at the University of Sydney. His focus is on the subject of species extinction. He is currently on field research in Hawai‘i.