Birds and Pedestrians

David Allen Sibley begins the third chapter of his book Sibley’s Birding Basics by quoting the inimitable Yogi Berra: “You can observe a lot by just watching” (21). The focus of this portion of Sibley’s book is evident in the chapter title, “The Challenges to Bird Identification.” Sibley addresses the significance of field marks, relative versus proportional differences between species, the overall gestalt of a bird, and more. He repeatedly stresses the fact that there is no substitute for experience in the field.

By the end of the chapter, he writes “the expert may seem to have a mystical ability to discern detail and make an identification when you can see only a blur…[but] we all perform equivalent feats every day” (37) [italics added]. By equivalent feats, Sibley is referring to how, for example, we can recognize a friend in an instant and can do so even if our view is largely obscured. Sometimes a unique mannerism or a distinctive gait is sufficient to reveal a close acquaintance’s identity even from a significant distance. This commonplace skill is well within most people’s grasp but can seem, as he says, almost mystical when it is consciously honed and directed toward an unfamiliar subject such as birds.

Most people do not spend a significant amount of time outdoors—time “in the field” as Sibley writes—and so as ubiquitous as birds are they remain unfamiliar. Indeed, it was recently reported that “[t]hree-quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates.” This was partly attributed to “lack of green spaces and the lure of digital technology.” I recently gained some insight into this fact when leading a group of children on a nature walk through a local park. One of the kids told me how very much he was looking forward to seeing the Angry Birds movie later that afternoon. It’s unclear how many birds he noticed while walking through the park.

For the civilized, the natural world itself is largely unfamiliar and can often appear simply as an undifferentiated green mass of vegetation. The ability to identify birds is often limited to identifying a flying animal as a bird and no more. It can therefore be understood as an act of resistance to look closer and attempt to discern what is going on; to see both the forest and the trees, the species and the individual. Even modest progress in this regard is incredibly rewarding as it has the potential to make our shrinking world big again and to reveal the diversity still present in an increasingly homogenized world.

Like other domesticated animals, our senses have severely atrophied and abilities that were once widespread can now seem almost unimaginable.

Sibley writes:

The beginner [birder] might see just a flock of ducks. By identifying the species of ducks you will come to appreciate the fact that each one is not “just another duck.” By looking still more closely, you will appreciate that individuals of each species, such as the Mallard, are not “just Mallards”…a world of information is opened up.” (21)

Compare this with philosopher Iris Murdoch’s assertion that:

love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to love an undifferentiated mass of green. And when all birds are simply birds, there will be little recognition of how many are struggling to survive or even on the verge of extinction.

As it happens, our failure and/or inability to look, notice, and discern is not just a threat to other animals; it is increasingly a threat to ourselves.

The corollary to Yogi Berra’s insight is that one can miss a lot by not watching and not looking. It is one thing to miss the subtle field marks of a particular bird but in a growing number of cases people who have succumbed to the “lure of digital technology” are failing to note not-so-subtle oncoming cars, buses, and even trains. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recently commissioned a study on “distracted walking” and has sponsored television and radio PSAs titled “Digital Deadwalkers”. A study from Ohio State reported that in 2010 over 1,500 pedestrians required emergency room treatment for injuries attributable to distracted walking. The total number of injuries is thought to be many, many times higher than that figure. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that in 2010 distracted pedestrians may have contributed to 4,200 pedestrian deaths and 70,000 traffic injuries.

The situation has gotten so bad, the number of inattentive people being killed by stepping in front of oncoming traffic has become so great, that a train station in Germany is experimenting with a potential design solution.

Recognizing that “the gaze of pedestrians has steadily moved downward as they stare at their phones”, the streetcar stations in Augsburg, Germany are installing flashing red lights on floor of the stations. Posted signs are no longer in many people’s shrinking field of view and so it is hoped that lights of the floor might alert smartphone users before they are about to be hit by a streetcar.

In 1958, Laurens van der Post said that the San/Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert had a connection to nature that “could almost be described as mystical” (quoted in John Zerzan’s Future Primitive Revisited, p. 14) In a civilized context, merely distinguishing one bird from another strikes most people as mystical. Soon it seems, the ability to peer beyond the screen of one’s phone to avoid an oncoming train might seem mystical.

Truly there is no substitute—digital or otherwise—for time “in the field”.

Birds, Bats, and the Occult

Turkey_vulture (1)In 1920, Herbert H. Beck of Franklin & Marshall College published a short article in The Auk, a publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union. His article was titled “The Occult Senses in Birds”.

While Beck was explicit in his allegiance to the idea of human superiority—describing the human mind as “Nature’s master product” and other animals as “below man”—he could not deny that certain animal abilities exceeded those found in human beings; that humans had lost something as they pulled away from other animals. He wrote:

certain senses widely or selectively a part of animal life, are absolutely gone in man. So thoroughly are these senses atrophied or lacking in the human mind that man with all his highly developed imagination cannot even vaguely visualize the subtle processes by which they operate

As examples of occult powers which he believed to be highly developed in birds but absent in humanity, Beck addresses a homing sense, a food-finding sense, and a mate-finding sense.

Beck argues that acute vision and great memory are insufficient to explain the migration of birds who cover vast distances across unfamiliar terrain. Beck shares anecdotal evidence that he believes supports the claim that sight and smell alone cannot account for the turkey vulture’s (and other scavengers’) ability to find food. And at his most (admittedly) speculative, Beck suggests a mate-finding sense which may exist but resorts to observations of insects to bolster the claim before concluding that “unfortunately research on these occult senses is difficult—often impossible.”

At this point, depending on one’s perspective, it may be disappointing, a great relief, or simply anticlimactic to discover that Beck does not mean to imply that these occult powers are to be understood as in any way supernatural. He explains that

intimately interwoven with the life histories of thousands of animal species of past ages and many species of the present day there is an active sense which may be called occult simply because it is hidden from the experience and understanding of man

So what strikes modern ears as a highly sensational title hides a fairly reasonable claim: other animals possess senses and ways of knowing that are unavailable to human beings. This may be because such senses have atrophied and been lost or possibly because we never possessed them in the first place. More from Beck’s article:

All phases of the occult sense have long since been lost in the channels of life that progressed toward civilized man; they exist only selectively in animals below man to-day; but they are still an important factor of existence in many life forms, as they have been a potent determinant in past ages.

Over fifty years after Beck’s article and forty years ago to the month, philosopher Thomas Nagel published a highly influential article in the October 1974 issue of The Philosophical Review titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”. In his article, Nagel chides his colleagues noting that:

Philosophers share the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood, though entirely different

Nagel, not being an ornithologist like Beck or a chiropterologist as his title might suggest, is not principally concerned with determining which species possess which senses to what extent. Instead, he is grappling with the difficulty inherent in understanding the nature of consciousness; if it’s possible to explain consciousness without leaving anything out. Nagel’s principal point is that “the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism”.

To take his example of a bat, we may be highly confident that there is something it is like to be a bat even if that experience and knowledge is inaccessible to human beings. In contrast, we are probably less confident that there is something it is like to be a rock.

Nagel explains:

Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life…No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us

and more specifically,

bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we [human beings] possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine

If I were to speculate, I would think that Beck would categorize bat sonar as an occult power; and while avoiding that particular buzzword, Nagel seems to be in agreement as it is clearly “hidden from the experience” of human beings.

Unfortunately, the real significance of this observation seems to have been lost on Beck who repeatedly affirms human superiority in his article. The realization that there are many ways of knowing and ways of being in the world that are completely alien to humanity should be quite humbling. Other animals know things that humans do not know and cannot know.