The Nature and Culture of Birds

Social anthropologists invested in the analysis of human-animal relationships tend to be alert to cultural difference and assume that no two societies whose cultures differ will conceive of or perceive animals in precisely the same way.[1] Thus, when it comes to birds, difference looms in classifications of “things that fly”—in particular at the most inclusive levels termed in scientific biological classification the class, order, and family.[2] Furthermore, time and again the cultural analysis of birds has proven to be insightful. In a famous example, Ralph Bulmer explained that the Kalam of the highlands of Papua New Guinea consider the cassowary not as the bird that science classifies it as but as akin to mammals, and not because it possesses peculiar physical features but because it is perceived as an untrusty affine.[3] Other analyses of the bird-human relationship in the same vein—in short, the culture of birds—are legion,[4] in part because in anthropology, the source of classificatory impulse has been explored for well over a century.[5]

In contrast to much cultural analysis, here I wish to explore similarity not difference: Might the nature of particular birds bring them into the spotlight for attention regardless of culture, setting them up for similar conception (discrimination, naming, specificity in taxonomy), even if perception inevitably is fundamentally cultural?[6]

That difference in classifications of “things that fly” appears in particular at the most inclusive levels implies that it exists far less at the most exclusive levels. Indeed (many have remarked), it is striking how often people, regardless of culture, name and classify similar discontinuities in birds at the level of the genus or species.[7] Things like birds must really be, as Claude Lévi-Strauss remarked, “good to contemplate.”[8]

If discriminating and labeling specific birds overlaps, then might not the specific intrinsic, or natural, birdiness of particular birds affect their meaningfulness? At the end of the day, the large, flightless, plumeless, bony-casque-headed cassowary is morphologically and behaviorally a very odd “thing that flies.” Might not therefore its morphological and behavioral pecularities predispose it to stand out?[9] Only, Mary Douglas might have argued, if its peculiarities made it anomalous. Anomalies—by definition irregular or exceptional things, or, to use Douglas’s word, “deviants” that do not fit into the class in which they belong—are often marked, auspiciously or otherwise, for special consideration. Douglas’s best known analysis explored the taxonomic peculiarities of animals tabooed for consumption by the ancient Hebrews of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but even more powerful was her account of the central African Lele’s marking of the pangolin for avoidance and cultic behavior. This animal is a scaly anteater with little legs and a tree climber that gathers itself in a ball when alarmed or sleeping. It is very peculiar. The Lele, who considered it abnormal (an anomaly, in Douglas’s eyes), thought it possessed “the body and tail of a fish, covered in scales.” [10]

Does its abnormality arise unmediated from nature alone or from the intersections of nature with culture and society? Douglas, who cautions against the “unwary use of anomaly,” firmly argues that “animal anomalies are not instilled in nature but emerge from particular features of classificatory systems.”[11] Yet might nature together with knowledge and classification of nature cause certain elements to come into view as suitable for idiosyncratic thought, anomalous or not? Whether or not the widespread similarities in discrimination and labeling of discontinuity suggests an answer to this question remains to be seen. Here I join the flow with exploratory thoughts on the natural underpinnings of the cultural apprehension of “crow” in the Canadian subarctic, the yellow-billed loon in the high Canadian arctic, and owls in the American South.


In the fall of 1984 I traveled by scow from Fort McPherson, a Gwich’in town on the Peel River west of the lower Mackenzie River in northern Canada, with John and Caroline Kay and their son to their bush camp at what they called itjee gwijaan naih, which referred to a small creek that had broken through the bank right there and not farther down the river. In camp, we tended daily a snare line for snowshoe hares, set nets (under the ice) for fish, hauled and cut wood for fuel, and busied ourselves with various other chores. John took note of birds that were good to eat (e.g. ptarmigan), hung around the camp (gray jay), or were augural (the boreal chickadee when it called). He didn’t bother to name others like the pine grosbeak. And he went out of his way to caution me to be on the lookout for the bird that he called deetrih’ in Gwich’in and crow in English, because he is “smart and crooked.” Everyone had some story about Crow, usually as the traditional trickster or transformer. Caroline Kay told me, in a narrative punctuated by laughter, about the time that Crow dressed up, morphed, wed a girl that all the young men wanted to marry, and then “just shit all over her.”  “Watch out for Crow,” she warned about an opportunistic bird that would swipe anything bright and portable, eat the food you cooked for your dogs, spoil your snare line if you did not get there first thing in the morning to retrieve dead hares—and morph to trick you in other-than-natural ways.

It is important to know that Crow is the vernacular name in English not for the American crow, whose range is far to the south, but for the common raven (Corvus corax). Pragmatic and cultural, John and Caroline Kay’s views of “Crow” converge in important respects with the portrait of these birds by observers trained in ornithology, ecology, or another biological science. And even if they do not grant ravens the cultural loading given them by the Gwich’in, scientists consider them, as do the Gwich’in, curious and attracted to baubles, tool users, extraordinary vocalizers, and very smart (no doubt due to both nature and nurture). Ravens moreover display emotions that lend themselves to comparison with human emotions. They are altogether formidable birds in nature—to the Gwich’in and many other native people along the Northwest Coast and in the adjacent continental interior, among whom a cycle of beliefs about the bird as trickster and transformer is remarkably developed, and to the scientist. Both indigenous people and non-native scientists no doubt notice, the first in the context of upbringing and prodigious environmental knowledge, the second as a result of observation and training, the bird’s natural traits in equal measure.[12]

Yellow-billed loon

If the nature of ravens sets them up for convergent notice of their natural proclivities, then might the nature of the yellow-billed loon, whose head appears atop dance caps, bill pointed 90 degrees skyward, donned by Copper Inuit of northern Canada in the early decades of the 20th century, not do so for this bird? Why did the Inuit incorporate the bill of this and not some other bird into caps worn when they danced and sang in hope of influencing other-than-human forces that controlled their lives?

That the Inuit connected loons and other birds with dance and song is well known. These particular Inuit reportedly placed the bill of a loon into the mouth of a child to promote the development of singing ability.[13] Yet given that the dance caps were worn in shamanic performance, more than song was involved in the selection of this bird. One hint of what more was involved is that an Inuit who wished to apprentice to a particular shaman sometimes presented him with a tent pole on top of which he tied a gull’s wing. The message was transparent: he wished to fly. Furthermore, in their performances the Copper Inuit interspersed dances and songs with ritual in which a shaman with his spirit helper divined taboo infraction and attempted to influence spirits of the air or to approach, through the air above or the water below, the mistress of the sea. Known by various names to various Inuit groups, and enshrined in myth, this woman deep in time was wooed by and married a fulmar, who took her to his land where she withered on a diet of fish. Her father rescued her but on the sea voyage home fulmars raised a storm, and to save himself he tossed her over the side of their craft, and when she tried to re-board cut off her fingers joint by joint. Her finger joints became whales and seals, and she sank to the bottom to become their mistress and all-knowing of taboo infractions that angered her. Shamans thus had to see to the confession of taboos and propitiate or intimidate her into releasing the animals for human consumption.

Shamans who wore yellow-billed loon caps as they performed associated themselves with a bird that possessed well-known essential qualities. Inuit often appropriated bird parts to accomplish certain ends. The Netsilingmiut (neighbors of the Copper Inuit) sewed avian amulets on clothing—the bill or head of a gull or Arctic tern for success in fishing, the feet or skin of a red-throated loon for kayaking speed, snowy owl claws for strong fists. Close observers of the natural world, they knew well the natural qualities of these birds. They understood that loons are not just remarkable vocalists but strongly territorial, visibly aggressive, powerful, direct, and high flyers, strong divers at great distances, tenacious and indefatigable, quick to use bills to inflict deep sternal wounds on all who threaten, and very hard to kill.

Three species of loons breed in Copper Inuit territory. The largest and heaviest with the greatest wingspan is the yellow-billed loon. If one were going to link oneself with the spirit of an avian species in order to reach, engage in combat with, and influence important other-than-human beings—to “fly through the air like a bird [or] go down into the ocean like a fish,” as one shaman was said to do—no species was more able than the yellow-billed loon. Thus the Copper Inuit deployed this bird—materially atop their caps, metaphorically on their magical journeys to the game-controlling sea goddess and elsewhere—in order to ensure various ends, including the availability of sea mammals and the continuation of life.[14]


The final example hypothesizing a natural predisposition for the cultural “marking” of birds concerns indigenous perceptions of owls in the 18th-19th century American South, a vast region in which native people overwhelmingly considered owls as dreaded, dangerous and feared birds. For most they were ill omens; the Choctaw, for example, considered the call of a great horned owl as a sign of sudden death somewhere, the wail of a screech owl to portend the death of a child in the family, and the hoots of probably the barred owl to prophesy the death of a relative.[15]

Many Indians linked owls with the spirits of the dead. Choctaws remarked that after death an interior soul, or ghost, went to the land of the dead but an exterior soul wandered the land at night and took the form of an owl or fox, revealing itself in a screech or bark that went unanswered. The Creek associated screech owls and great horned owls with ghosts or wandering souls—spirits that could kill any who heard them wail or hoot.

For many, owls were terrifying witches or spirits bent on malevolence. Chickasaws believed that witches could shift shape to become owls or nighthawks, and that the sound of a screech owl signaled a witch nearby; Choctaws associated great horned owls with witchcraft, and thought that a supernatural horned owl undertook lethal nocturnal forays against humans and animals; and Creeks regarded all owls with fear and the great horned owl in particular with “great terror.” They connected owls powerfully to witchcraft, believing that a witch or sorcerer, after taking out his intestines, could morph into an owl—probably the great horned—and fly about and do ill.

The Cherokee, about whom far more is known than other southern Indians, also linked owls with impending death or dire misfortune, as well as with ghosts; for them, the great horned, screech, barred, and long-eared owls were overwhelmingly malevolent. They thought that the screech owl forecast and brought death, sometimes by spoiling medicine given to a patient; if they caught one they cut it into pieces. They especially feared the long-eared owl, which they would not kill or eat. Their dread came mainly from a connection with witches that was transparent in language: the long-eared owl, great horned owl, and witch all had the same gloss. Witches were slippery and could morph into any bird but were most likely to take the form of an owl, whip-poor-will, common nighthawk, or hawk—or a wolf.

The picture was not all bleak in the region—various Indians considered the dueting of a great horned and barred owl a sign of good news; thought that as owls, neighbors could heal the sick; regarded a taxidermied owl was a powerful diviner; and believed that as a transformed owl, a man with special knowledge might discover the enemy’s intentions. But this beneficial side did not neutralize, much less counter, the overwhelmingly negative regard of owls.

These beliefs were widespread across 500,000 square miles and major cultural and linguistic boundaries. True, the Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw might have shared conceptions of owls through their related Muskogean tongues, but the Cherokee spoke Iroquoian, the Catawba Siouan, and others in the region Algonquian, Caddoan, and Timucuan languages. Furthermore, beyond the region, no category of birds in indigenous North America, except, perhaps, goatsuckers (the whip-poor-will and others) seems to be more closely associated with sickness and death than owls.[16]

Of the seven species of owls present in the south, the most feared were the great horned, long-eared, and screech owls. Why? To start with, most birds are diurnal, which some owls also are, but most owls are crepuscular or nocturnal, or both, and therefore anomalous as birds. Of the North American owls, the most diurnal are the snowy and short-eared owls, the northern hawk owl is active day and night, and the great grey owl is mainly crepuscular and nocturnal but during the breeding season is diurnal. The barn and great-horned owls are crepuscular and nocturnal, and the long-eared, screech, barred, spotted, boreal, and saw-whet owls are almost entirely nocturnal.[17]

As Ralph Bulmer, Eugene Hunn, Gregory Forth, and other ethnoornithologists have hypothesized, if a bird is a night bird then it is negatively marked—and the most nocturnal of owls would be most negatively construed, the least nocturnal least marked.[18] In fact, in the American South, the mainly nocturnal, negatively construed long-eared, great horned and screech owls support the hypothesis.[19]

A second reason for negative marking is the vocal repertoire of owls—the hoots, moans, whinnys, rattles, hissing, screams, and bill-snapping—that many find disconcerting—and is quite unlike almost all other birds.[20] The long-eared owl—the Cherokee witch—hoots up to two hundred times when advertising itself, each hoot several seconds apart; when disturbed, it barks and shrieks, sways, and cups its wings menacingly.

A third reason is the ability of owls—far more pronounced than in other species of birds—to morph; to swivel their head to gaze behind, to contort and bend their necks to look directly behind and above; to shape-shift from a puffed-out relaxed state to alert rigidity. When tense, long-eared owls are well known for being able to erect their horns and compress their bodies, shifting shape quickly from rotund to pencil-thinness, their open yellow eyes piercing the gaze of the observer.

Finally, owls are aggressive, especially when breeding, and some look disconcertingly human-like with round faces and frontally oriented eyes, or disturbingly mammalian with horns or “ears” (related to display not hearing). For good reason, some owls have acquired vernacular names like cat owl or monkey-face owl. Moreover, as some American Indians relate, owls attack suddenly and silently and go for the eyes.  In combination, these various traits make owls—“birds” whose characteristics make them highly unusual as such—prime candidates for special perception.


It has been proposed here that the instrinsic qualities of ravens, yellow-billed loons, and owls make them excellent prospective symbols. At first glance this goes against the grain of cultural analysis. Yet as a conclusion it is far less radical than it appears. Years ago, the anthropologist Roy Ellen remarked that the cuscus, a marsupial marked for totemic significance by the Nuaulu of eastern Indonesia, was a good symbol because of its physical characteristics; not that it was marsupial rather than placental but that it was large, strong, and human-like in facial features—all “intrinsic qualities” crucial to a special status.  In suggesting that anomalies “do not exist in an empirical vacuum,” Eugene Hunn concluded in similar fashion.  And despite his analysis of the cassowary-as-affine, Bulmer himself apparently favored combining insights from natural history and cultural analysis.[21] The cultural analysis of bird-human intersections possesses admitted strengths, as does the elegant and compelling argument of Mary Douglas concerning the pangolin, but I agree with what I see as caution voiced by Ellen, Hunn, Bulmer (and others) that in ethnoornithology it helps to begin one’s analysis with the observations of indigenous people, which, if astute, take in the natural characteristics of birds that form a foundation for perception and meaning in the constellation of things that fly. Needless to say, by being attentive to the natural qualities of birds that bring them, as proposed, into the eye to start with, we bring balance to the cultural analysis of birds, unusual or not, anomalies or not, that intersect with humans.

[1] An early version of these remarks was presented as “Augural, powerful, and dangerous birds among Indians in the American south” at the annual meeting of the Society of Ethnobiology, Berkeley, CA, March 30, 2007.

[2] In scientific biological classification (associated with Linnaeus in the 18th century), the ranked categories within today’s class of Aves “birds” in the chordate phylum in the animal kingdom, from basic to inclusive, are species, genus, family, and order (often expanded by subspecies, superorder, subclass, etc). To exemplify, Falco peregrinus or the peregrine falcon is a species in the genus Falco (the true falcons) in the family Falconidae (true falcons and crested caracara) in the order Falconiformes (falcons, hawks, eagles) in the class Aves (birds).

[3] Ralph Bulmer, “Why is the cassowary not a bird? A problem of zoological taxonomy among the Karam of the New Guinea highlands,” Man 2 (1967), 5-25. An affine is a person related by marriage.

[4] E.g. E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer Religion (Oxford, 1956); Raymond Firth, “Twins, birds and vegetables: problems of identification in primitive religious thought.” Man 1 (1966), 1-17; J. Christopher Crocker, “My Brother the Parrot,” in The Social Use of Metaphor: Essays on the Anthropology of Rhetoric, ed. D. Sapir and J. C. Crocker (Philadelphia, 1977), 164-92; Steven Feld, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression (Philadelphia, 1982); Stanley Brandes, “Animal metaphors and social control in Tzintzuntzan,” Ethnology 22 (1983), 207-15;  Steven Feld, “Dialogic editing: interpreting how Kaluli read Sound and Sentiment,” Cultural Anthropology 2 (1987), 190-210; Paul Sillitoe, “From head-dresses to head-messages: the art of self-decoration in the highlands of Papua New Guinea,” Man 23 (1988), 298-318; Steven Feld, “Cockatoo, hornbill, kingfisher,” in Man and a Half, ed. Andrew Pawley (Auckland, 1991), 207-13; Kenneth Kensinger, “Feathers make us beautiful” How Real People Ought to Live (Prospect Heights IL, 1995), 247-58; Marjorie Balzer, “Flights of the sacred: symbolism and theory in Siberian shamanism,” American Anthropologist 98 (1996), 305-18; Terence Turner, “‘We are parrots,’ ‘twins are birds’: play of tropes as operational structure,” in Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology, ed. James W. Fernandez (Stanford, 1991), 121-58; Michael Do ve, “Process vs. product in Bornean augury: a traditional knowledge system’s solution to the problem of knowing,” in Redefining Nature: Ecology, Culture and Domestication, eds. Roy Ellen and Katsuyoshi Fukui (Oxford, 1996), 557-596; Beth Conklin, “Body paint, feathers, and vcrs: aesthetics and authenticity in Amazonian activism,” American Ethnologist 24 (1997), 711-737; Gregory Forth, Nage Birds: Classification and Symbolism among an Eastern Indonesian People (New York, 2004).

[5] Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classfication (London, 1963); Rodney Needham, “Introduction,” Primitive Classification, vii-xlviii. For the larger context see Scott Atran, Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science (Cambridge, 1990) and for a popular account see Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (New York, 2009).

[6] That perception is cultural is not to say that it need always differ.

[7] These levels have often been termed the folk generic level. See Jared Diamond, “This-fellow frog, name belong-him dakwo,” Natural History 4 (1989), 16, 18-20, 22-23; James Boster, Brent Berlin, and John O’Neill, “The Correspondence of Jivaroan to Scientific Ornithology,” American Anthropologist 88 (1986), 569-83. 1991), 137-47; Eugene Hunn, “Sahaptin bird classification,” in Man and a Half, ed. Andrew Pawley (Aukland, 1991), 137-47; Brent Berlin, Ethnobiological Classification: Principles of Categorization of Plants and Animals in Traditional Societies (Princeton, 1992); Douglas Medin and Scott Atran, eds. Folkbiology (Cambridge MA, 1999); Scott Atran, “Itzaj Maya folkbiological taxonomy: cognitive universals and cultural particulars,” in Folkbiology, 166-94; Jared Diamond and K. D. Bishop, “Ethno-ornithology of the Ketengban people, Indonesian New Guinea,” in Folkbiology, 17-45.

[8] Claude Lévi-Strauss, For translation of “bonnes à penser” as the more felicitous “good to contemplate” than the widely-known “good to think,” see Krech, Spirits of the Air, x .

[9] Brent Berlin, “The chicken and the egg-head revisited: further evidence for the intellectualist bases of ethnobiological classification,” in Man and a Half, ed. Andrew Pawley (Aukland, 1991), 57-66.

[10] Mary Douglas, “The abominations of Leviticus,” Purity and Danger (London, 1966), 41-57; Mary Douglas, Implicit Meanings (NY: Routledge, 1991); Mary Douglas, “The Pangolin Revisited: A New Approach to Animal Symbolism”, in Signifying Animals: Human Meaning in the Natural World, ed. R. G. Willis (NY: Routledge, 1994), 23-33; Eugene Hunn, “The abominations of Leviticus revisited,” in Classifications in Their Social Context, eds. Roy Ellen and David Reason (London, 1979), 103-16; Ralph Bulmer, “The uncleanness of the birds of Leviticus and Deuteronomy,” Man 24 (1989), 304-21.

[11] Douglas, “The Pangolin Revisited,” 23.

[12] Bernd Heinrich, Ravens in Winter (New York, 1989); Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven (New York, 1999). On the raven cycle, see e.g. Stith Thompson, Tales of the North American Indians (Cambridge, 1929); Dell Hymes, “Mythology,” in HNAI: Northwest Coast, Wayne Suttles ed. (Washington, D.C., 1990), 593-601.

[13] For the Inuit, a loon’s song had nothing to do with the cultural associations common in American popular culture, viz. laughter, insanity, or wilderness.

[14] Shepard Krech III, “Birds and Eskimos,” in Arctic Clothing of North America, eds. J.C.H. King et al (London, 2005), 62-68.

[15] This section is based on Shepard Krech III, Spirits of the Air: Birds and American Indians in the South (Athens, GA, 2009), 145-150, 157-163, 170-171 and passim.

[16] Owls are also feared beyond Native North America—although it would indeed be rash to make any claim to universality of a belief in owls as  malevolent.

[17] Claus König, Friedhelm Weick, and Jan-Hendrik Becking. Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

[18] Bulmer, “Kalam classification;” Forth, Nage Birds; Hunn, “Sahaptin.”

[19] The North American north presents a more complicated picture because of photoperiodicity: light low or absent during winter, and plentiful or round-the-clock in summer. Yet here the negatively regarded great-horned owl active in low winter light and far more neutral snowy owl present during summer daylight also lend support for the diurnal/nocturnal proposition.

[20] On this and succeeding paragraphs see also Bent, Arthur Cleveland. Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey. Order Falconiformes and Strigiformes. Part 2. New York: Dover, 1961, 140-53, 163; Waldo Lee McAtee, “Folk Names of Florida Birds,” The Florida Naturalist, October 1955, 103, 121-123 (monkey-face owl); Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls: A Guide to Bird Symbolism. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978), 115-20; J. S. Marks et al, Long-eared Owl (Asio otus). Birds of North America, ed. A Poole and F Gill, no 133 (Philadelphia, 1994).

[21] Roy F. Ellen, “The marsupial in Nuaulu ritual behavior,” Man 7 (1972), 223-238, p. 234; Hunn, “Abominations revisited,” 114.

9 comments to The Nature and Culture of Birds

  • Let me begin with thanking Shepard Krech for his elegant ethno-ornithological essay, a short but fascinating cross-cultural analysis of three bird species in North America. Exploring “similarity not difference,” he tells us how his inquiry was guided by the idea that, regardless of their respective cultural differences, indigenous peoples share certain perceptions and understandings of particular birds based on biological characteristics, in particular distinctive behaviors routinely observed in their natural environment.

    Historically depending on hunting, fishing, and gathering for their daily survival, they are first and foremost naturalists who learned to distinguish plants and animals in their natural environment for practical purposes such as whether or not they are “bonnes à manger” (good/goods to eat). In this respect, foragers are unlike philosophers preferring a book-lined comfortable office over a rustic log-cabin or thatched hut in the open wilderness. (To be fair to Claude Lévi-Strauss, of course, his now-famous comment on indigenous classifications of natural species in terms of “bonnes à penser” –good/goods to think– was publicized in the context of his scholarly discussion of totemism.)

    Although the author does mention that the owl has “negative markings” in part due to its nocturnal activity, it is interesting that the loon can be especially loud at night as well, which may help explain why the Wabanaki Indians of coastal Northeast America traditionally associate this water bird with mysterious powers. Identified as messengers of the Wabanaki culture-hero Kluskap, loons are associated with dark forebodings, warning of impending danger or death. It was this giant shaman-hunter himself who taught these birds their “strange long cry like the howl of a dog, and when the loons were in need of him or would pray to him they were to utter this cry.” See the Mi’kmaq legends “How Glooscap became friendly to the Loons, and made them his Messengers” (published by Charles L. Leland, 1884) and “The Loon Magician” (published by Silas T. Rand, 1894).

    Finally, having enjoyed the occasional privilege of observing this observer in his summer cottage in Maine, with its magnificent view on Eggemoggin Reach, I confess not being surprised by his naturalist perspective on native birdlife. On that seacoast, I am sure, Krech has frequently watched the three birds selected for his essay, namely the Crow (and perhaps even a Raven, now and then), Owl (minimally the Great Horned Owl and Barred Owl), and Loon (albeit the Gavia immer, not Gavia adamsii ).

  • Richard Chacon

    Shepard Krech’s work: “The Nature and Culture of Birds” will, no doubt, be much appreciated by anthropologists interested in understanding Amerindian beliefs and attitudes regarding the natural world. I found his description of Native American views on birds particularly interesting because, in many ways, these views are very similar to the ones I recorded while conducting fieldwork among the Achuar (Shiwiar) of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

    For example, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creeks, consider certain birds to be malevolent. Likewise, the Achuar consider the pesépese or slate-colored grosbeak (Pitylus grossus) as being evil, while other birds, such as the ikiánchim or Little Cuckoo (Piaya minuta), are adept at detecting lies. Others, such as the chuán or King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) are said to ‘be not of this world’. That is to say, these feathered creatures do not inhabit this realm of existence, but rather they descend, always rather unexpectedly, from the heavens. Frequently, a forlorn aúho or common potoo (Nyctibius griseus) laments the loss of her lover Nando (Moon) by emitting a mournful call in the night. Additionally, Achuar husbands must be on guard not to let an ambúsh (any type of owl) perch too close to an unattended wife lest she become pregnant as a result of its repeated hooting. The children of such unions are called ‘children of ambúsh’ and these individuals are identified by the copious amount of body hair they possess. Lastly, is the regal yakákwa or carunculated caracara (Phalcoboenus carunculatus) which is believed to be the ‘headman of all birds’. Sadly, many of these indigenous understandings of the natural world are being lost as the result of the activities of various fundamentalist Christian missionaries operating in the Amazon Basin.

    Krech’s documentation of Native American bird lore is also important as it may help shed light on patterns of Amerindian natural resource utilization. The reason for this stems from the fact that native beliefs affect indigenous harvesting and disposal practices. For example, among the Achuar, the bones of desirable game birds such as wa or tinamou (Tinamus spp.) and másho or Salvin’s curassow (Mitu salvini) are never discarded in common trash heaps where dogs would have access to them. Instead, the bones from these species are always respectfully tossed in a river. Failure to do so would ruin a hunter’s luck. Additionally, after giving birth, mothers are admonished not to consume aónz or chachalca birds (Ortalis spp.) for at least two weeks. As such, taboos involving birds affect native diets as well as the treatment of bone. Since the composition of bones in refuse pits may be skewed by such practices, zooarchaeologists trying to reconstruct ancient diets should be aware of the possibility that similar taboos may have been operating in the past.

    Therefore, Krech’s essay should spur us to redouble our efforts at documenting the complex relationship that Amerindians have with the natural world.

  • Tom Dunlap

    Having just finished a book on field guides to the birds (due out with Oxford around December) I found “The Nature and Culture of Birds” very interesting, not least because the same sort of classifying and typing took place among the current population. The Indians are far fewer now but the reputation of such birds as the owls has not changed. The prevalence of chicken raising and a set of common suspicions led to the labeling of all the various hawks as “chicken hawks” and their wholesale slaughter. The defense of the rodent-eating hawks goes back to the 1890s, and in the 1940s the American Ornithological Union began a campaign to change many hawk names to break the association. So the Duck Hawk became the Peregrine, the Marsh Hawk the Harrier, and so on. I did not do a systematic survey of superstition but there is a rich field for some scholar. Birds are indeed good to think with.

    I agree that much of this comes from particular, intrinsic characteristics of the birds, things that people in many cultures react to in the same way. Owls seem spooky to Indians, African-Americans, and whites alike because we have much the same reaction to something that seems as odd as an owl. Those eyes, looking at you, the sounds, that silent presence appearing or disappearing in the dusk…

    This analysis could be extended, for beyond intrinsic characters there are those people in different cultures attach to birds. Anyone interested should start with folk biology and the literature on birds’ names. From there the possibilities are endless. Birds fascinate people, today as they did thousands of years ago, and they are woven into our culture in many ways. Truly, they are good to think with.

  • Fritz Davis

    The Nature and Culture of Birds – Response

    It is always a pleasure to read an essay by Professor Krech. As I would expect, “The Nature and Culture of Birds,” though brief, stretches across a great expanse from the high arctic to the deep south. The temporal expanse is no less impressive than then geographic: from the recent past to archaeological to the historical. Since I currently reside in the southeast, I find Krech’s discussion of owls most compelling. It occurs to me that even in suburban Tallahassee, one hears owls (Great Horned, Barred, and Screech) all the time. Rarely does an early morning or evening walk pass without hearing one or more owls hooting or whistling their calls into the stillness of the dark. With that in mind, the Indian spirit world must have been a fearsome one indeed. If an owl calling portended doom and gloom, Indians had constant reminders of those who had passed into the spirit world. Worse, if an encounter spelled sickness and death, that threat must have been a regular concern. How did natives negotiate the imagined threats of the spirit world and the real threats of the natural world, which must have been quite significant as well?

    I also appreciated Krech’s interpretation of the hierarchy of threat conveyed by owl forms with a greater threat attached to “horned” species and a lesser one to “round-headed” species. I must ask, nevertheless, where the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) stood in this hierarchy? This white owl, with its heart-shaped face and blood curdling screech, should have been one of the most feared despite its crepuscular habits. To see one fly over and to hear it scream in the fading light of dusk would surely leave anyone with the impression that a spirit had just passed.

    As for Crow as trickster, how does this symbol resonate with the many other trickster myths that appear throughout native belief systems?

    Finally, I wonder if the relative scarcity of Yellow-billed Loons in comparison with other loon species added to the power they conveyed to those who wore their bills as symbols?

  • Reading Shepard Krech’s piece on “The Nature and Culture of Birds” I found myself reflecting on the evidence that suggests that the “crow” family (corvidae) has had a profound influence on human cultures throughout the northern hemisphere. His reference to the Gwich’in “views” of crows has parallels in the current and historical language, myths, beliefs and practices of people throughout Europe and Asia. Conversely, my co-author John Marzluff and I would argue that the co-evolutionary line that crows have taken with humans makes them a unique companion in the human experience.

    I say unique for several reasons. It is difficult not to notice these birds, for wild as they are, they have thrived, with few exceptions, in company with human enterprise. They have successfully exploited our proclivity to modify and disrupt habitat while more specialized species have failed to do so. Moreover they do so with a set of behaviors that are a match for some of our own as, among other things, they make and use tools, take risks, solve problems, exercise wrath, remember faces, and demonstrate filial devotion — all while having enough time and energy to enjoy the pleasures of play.

    Marzluff and I have been exploring at some length the neurobiology of the crow in light of the recent research of the avian brain. The science here makes it very clear that the corvid brain in particular, while evolving independently from a common ancestor, is not only similar to a mammal’s brain, but at least equal in cerebral capacity to that of a higher primate. With this in mind it’s little wonder that we find that the human culture is so inclusive of these species inasmuch as we see much of ourselves in their behavior. Then too, while keeping company with the crow, we have celebrated them richly in the arts of literature, music, sculpture and painting.

  • Krech’s ‘Birdiness’ and the Meaningfulness of no Meaning.
    By Michael R. Dove

    Over the past half-century, developments in Anthropology and allied fields have led to considerable collapsing of the boundaries between studies of nature and studies of culture, and to more studies of humans in nature. These have included the development of environmental anthropology, the study of indigenous knowledge, especially indigenous environmental knowledge, and efforts to understand and support indigenous systems of resource management and conservation. These studies, combined with parallel studies in the natural sciences, have problematized long-standing, idealized concepts of ‘pristine nature’. Social and natural scientists alike have come to recognize that most if not all of the earth’s surface is covered by anthropogenic landscapes, which reflect the interaction of social as well as natural dynamics. These developments have profoundly unsettled the concept of nature itself, leading–supported perhaps by the cultural turn in Anthropology–to the concept of nature as being culturally ‘constructed’. Arturo Escobar (1999) has glossed this as a shift from a concept of nature to a concept of ecosystem.

    These academic developments were driven, in part, by reactions against scholarly customs and concepts that seemed to be no longer productive if not, indeed, pernicious. These include unreal and essentialist views of ‘pure versus tainted nature’ (Sheil and Mejjaard 2010), a related Cartesian divide between nature and culture, a view of native peoples as resource-despoilers, and a century-old belief that in order to protect nature in parks, indigenous inhabitants needed to be evicted–all set in the context of decades of widespread failures of orthodox approaches to conservation. Cronon (1996) has famously argued that the dichotomization between the places where we live and the ‘natural’ places where we do not live is fatal to conservation, although some conservation biologists have disputed this (Soulé and Lease 1995). Extensive efforts to combine conservation of nature and development of proximate human communities have been attempted, although the wisdom of this approach continues to be debated. All of these debates have focused on the efficacy of conservation and socio-economic development, and possible synergies and a-synergies between the two. There has been much less attention to the implications of these debates for our understanding of intrinsic natural senses of meaning–which brings us to the fascinating essay by Shepard Krech III.

    Krech, in what he self-consciously labels a departure from the field of cultural analysis, and specifically from that idea that nature is always seen as different due to the cultural differences of those seeing it, wants instead to look at the way that nature is seen as the same across cultures. As he says, he wants to look at similarities not differences. He wants to look at aspects of nature that come “into the spotlight” regardless of culture; and he does so by focusing on what he calls the “birdiness” of birds. Krech presents three striking studies of human belief systems concerning birds, in three different regions of North America, which he uses to argue for “a natural predisposition for the cultural marking of birds”. Krech argues, in short, for the existence of “intrinsic qualities” in birds, in nature, that are culturally embroidered, to be sure, but yet exist ontologically prior to culture. He places himself within the anthropological tradition of Ellen, Hunn, and Bulmer, who all begin with the observations of indigenous peoples of the “natural characteristics/qualities of birds” that “bring them into the eye to start with”.

    This strikes me as a refreshing and perhaps needful counterpoint to the cultural constructivist stance, so much so that I would like to add an example of my own, pertaining to the role of birds in augury, in divination. The cultural practice of ‘reading’ the behavior of birds for supernatural signs, for the will of the divine, is ancient and widespread. It is known to us from classical Greece and Rome, from near-contemporary Scotland, and from contemporary Borneo (Freeman 1960, Maclean 1980). Examining this global tradition in the spirit of Krech’s essay, and so looking for the cross-cultural similarities, one characteristic of bird behavior that stands out is it randomness, and the opportunities that this randomness offers for cultural interpretation and elaboration.

    I have studied bird augury in Borneo and suggested that it serves resource-management ends, in both instrumental and metaphoric ways, in a highly unpredictable environment, by offering a counterpoint to overly deterministic agricultural decision-making (Dove 1993, 1996, 1999). Augury from the flight or calls of omen birds, which are inherently random, offers the tropical forest cultivators of Borneo an opportunity to read the will of the divine regarding decisions that in effect lie beyond their management capacity. This is not only reassuring, it interrupts the very human tendency to think that they can predict the future, when in fact they can’t. A famous and perhaps related case is the poison oracle of the Azande, described by Evans-Pritchard (1937), in which chickens are given a painstakingly measured dose of poison to bring them to the very knife’s edge of death, whereupon the outcome–life or death–can be seen as the reflection of divine will, as it bears upon the domestic disputes of the oracle-users. The human inability to predict the death of the chicken is the same as the human inability to predict whether an omen bird in Borneo will fly to the right or left (which conveys omens of opposite meaning).

    In the widespread and ancient systems of augury from birds, therefore, the very lack of meaning in their behavior–from a human standpoint–becomes a vessel infused with cultural meaning. So this too is another intrinsic quality of birds across cultures, albeit somewhat different from those cited by Krech. In this case, it is not their palpable meaning, but rather their lack of palpable meaning, that “brings them into the eye”. The lack of meaning, as a sort of tabula rasa on which divine will can be written, becomes a source of meaning. This seeing of meaning in random natural events speaks to the ancient and cross-cultural interest in accessing supernatural knowledge, intent, and will. It also reminds us, and I credit Krech’s essay with illuminating this point for me, that natural phenomena, before they are culturally constructed, are naturally constructed, and this has cultural consequences. The fact that ‘chaotic’ natural systems are actually sought out as metaphors of intent, seems, ironically, to underline this point. Given the increasing evidence that modernity has not shielded us from such chaos, but quite the contrary, has made us ever more vulnerable, this may be a salutary reminder.

    Cronon, William. 1996. The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. In: Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon, 69–90. New York: W. W. Norton.
    Dove, M.R. 1993, Uncertainty, humility and adaptation to the tropical forest: The agricultural augury of the Kantu. Ethnology 40(2):145-167.
    —-1996. Process versus product in Kantu’ augury: A traditional knowledge system’s solution to the problem of knowing. In: Fukui, K. and Ellen, R.F. (eds.), Redefining Nature: Ecology, culture, domestication. 557-596, Berg Publishers, Oxford.
    —-1999. Forest Augury in Borneo: Indigenous Environmental Knowledge–About the Limits to Knowledge of the Environment. In: Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, D. Posey ed., pp.376-380. London: Intermediate Technology Publications, for UNEP.
    Escobar, Arturo. 1999. After Nature: Steps to an Antiessentialist Political Ecology. Current Anthropology 40(1):1-30.
    Evans-Pritchard, E.E., Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among The Azande, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1937
    Freeman, J.D. 1960. Iban augury. In: Smythies, B.E. (ed.), The Birds of Borneo. 73-98, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh.
    Maclean, C., Island on the Edge of the World: The Story of St Kilda, New York, Taplinger Publishing Co., 1980
    Moore, O.K., ‘Divination: A New Perspective’, American Anthropologist, vol.59, 1957, pp.69-74
    Sheil, Douglas and Erik Meijaard. 2010. Purity and Prejudice: Deluding Ourselves about Biodiversity Conservation. Biotropica 42(5): 566-568.
    Soulé, Michael E., and Gary Lease, eds. 1995. Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction. Washington, (D.C.): Island Press.

    1. Cf. Moore’s (1957) analysis of Speck’s data on scapulimancy among the Naskapi of Labrador.
    2. An example closer to home that has entered the everyday lexicon is the rhetorical question, from the early days of motoring in North America, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” This cultural import of this question derives precisely from the fact that there is no answer.

  • Sarah Jansen

    Response by Sarah Jansen to Shepard Krech’s “The Nature and Culture of Birds”

    Shepard Krech’s approach of looking at similarities rather than differences among different cultures in their perception of birds is evocative and fruitful, as are all his works.

    In this work, he observed that the same species of birds are perceived in similar ways in different cultures, and, from there, he raises the question, “might not the specific intrinsic, or natural, birdiness of particular birds affect their meaningfulness?” (p. 3), and might not “the nature of particular birds bring them into the spotlight for attention regardless of culture, setting them up for similar conception (…), even if perception inevitably is fundamentally cultural?” (p. 4)

    He thus revisits the conceptual divide of nature vs. culture, so fundamental to anthropology, so to speak from the birds’ eye perspective. And along the way, he engages afresh with yet another anthropological classic, practices of classification.

    As to anthropologists, and yet in different ways, the nature/culture divide has been a central topic among historical epistemologists of science. Does science discover Nature, or is nature that of the physical world that scientists can make operable, a result of scientific practices such as classification, regulated observation, and experimentation? Do natural objects and their intrinsic properties set any limits to “social construction”, and how do they?

    To an animal behaviorist inclined to epistemological reflection, questions of perception are of crucial importance, both in reflecting the impact of the observer on the observed, and in investigating the physiological basis of behavior.

    My response to this work will take the shape of a series of loosely stringed, open ended questions inviting further discussion, rather than a cogent argument supportive or critical of the original work. Some of the following questions are informed by a training as a biologist and animal behaviorist, others by the profession of a historical epistemologist of the sciences.

    1. In itself a form of classification, the divide between nature and culture in the social sciences, and between nature and nurture in the biological sciences, may have both furthered and hindered the understanding of phenomena. What is gained, and what is lost by using the framework of nature vs culture to explain the perceptions of birds across cultures? Taking this approach obviously contributes to the nature/culture debate. Yet are there alternative ways of engaging with the observations that are communicated in this paper? What is it we want to know? Whether the physical make up of a bird, irrespective of our knowledge about it, constrains or shapes the space for cultural perception? Or do we wish to delineate the boundaries between nature and culture anew within the classificatory system of anthropology? Or perhaps investigate what makes an animal salient in different cultures?

    2. “Classification” – and Shepard Krech guides the reader through the major of many anthropological works on classification – includes practices that greatly differ epistemologically. As Michel Foucault postulated long ago, classificatory practices of early European Natural History treated signs as part of the signified and thus needed no reference to a ‘natural’ object. In the 17th/18th centuries classificatory practices (such as the Linnaean Systema Naturae ) emerged that viewed signs as representational forms and thus required reference either to the signified as an object per se, or to another sign in a chain of signification. How does Shepard Krech’s suggestion work when considered among these different modes of classification?

    Is the bird’s “nature” the referent to cross-culturally shared narratives about animals, such as owls as harbingers of death? Or is this narrative part of the animal as it is perceived? Does everybody share a separation between these narratives on one hand, and properties of the bird such as the owl’s ability to fly silently and startle its prey and its human observer, its ability and need to take animal life to live, its large size, its upright posture, its nocturnal biological rhythm?

    3. When observations and responses to certain kinds of animals are similar across different cultures, how much does it tell us about the “nature” of the observed animal, how much about the “nature” of the observing species, in other words, about the physical constraints of human perception? In other words, perception is cultural and also physically constrained, and these latter constraints differ among species. Put differently, what happens to the “intrinsic or natural properties of a bird” if we expand the explanandum beyond intercultural similarities in perception to interspecific similarities in perception, from anthropology to zoology? What aspects of an object does the perceptory apparatus of humans select and how does this selection differ e.g. from that of a mole, an insect, or a dog? While these animals, to the extent that we know at least, do not endow owls with symbolism, they react to owls or ignore them. What are the similarities and differences in reaction among them? What does it tell us about owls, what about the perceiving organisms?

    4. Do the cross-cultural similarities in perception of these three salient birds perhaps reflect shared ways among these cultures of engaging with the physical world? Are these cultures similar in making a living by observing and manipulating live animals and plants and sharing a habitat with them, as is common in subsistence economies? Would an animal evoke the same perceptions and narratives in a human with a completely different way of living? To take an extreme example, how would a financial analyst whose habitat is Wall Street perceive a recording of an owl’s call? A film of an owl’s flight? Would these sounds and sights evoke a perception of the owl as a signifier of death? What would happen if such a person is placed out of his/her cultural context and exposed to a live owl in its natural habitat?

    5. Is “nature” that which humans can observe with the unaided eye, the macroscopically visible, as it is to Linnaean biological classification and, in various ways, to naturalists all over the world, including the people whose knowledge of birds Shepard Krech engages with? And is it the instrumentally mediated visibility of molecular phylogenomics? The two current biological modes of classification, Linnaean and molecular phylogenetic, differ in their explanandum, and are often at odds about the “nature” of an animal or plant, reviving historical controversies about “natural” vs “artificial” systems of classification that posed challenges to Linnaean taxonomy from its inception.

    This question points to the situatedness and function of observation for the purpose of classification: Is it creating an inventory of potential living resources for expanding empires (Linnaean taxonomy)? Is it a way of understanding the evolution of the current diversity of life forms (molecular phylogenomics)? Or is it a way of understanding the singularity of an animal in the local context of sharing the same habitat as the animal does?

    On a different level of inquiry, I am not sure I understand what is meant by “Thus, when it comes to birds, difference looms in classifications of ‘things that fly’—in particular at the most inclusive levels termed in scientific biological classification the class, order, and family.” (p. 1) Is this a reference to differences between approaches to biological classification, to differences within one approach to biological classification, or to differences between biological and non-biological forms of classification?

    6. What would differ if we talk about salient animals instead of anomalous ones, thus leaving the frameworks of nature/culture and classification, and discuss what makes these animals salient in different contexts? Salient animals could refer to a unique (in its habitat) combination of major physical traits such as inability to fly while having feathers and beaks, or to abundance (being scarce or ubiquitous), large size, danger to humans, utility to humans? Utility in subsistence as well as in industrial and commercial market economies?

  • Shepard Krech III

    By Shepard Krech III

    I wish to thank all for their thoughtful remarks. Several commentators remind us of powerful cultural perceptions of birds whose natural underpinnings might have brought them into perceptual range as potentially salient or meaningful. Thus Rick Chacon provides details on the Ecuadorian Amazonian Achuar for whom the king vulture is “not of this world” but descends unexpectedly from on high (as in fact it might), or who consider that owls might cause not merely pregnancy in an unattended wife but the birth of an excessively hairy infant (yet another example of the problematic status of these oft-anomalous nocturnal birds). One can only hope that an ethnographer like Chacon will return to the field with bird-human relationships in his sights and explore further not just the salience of owls, vultures, caracaras and other birds, but beliefs such as the one that bird bones must be kept from dogs that, presumably, help to hunt them else the hunt will be spoiled, or the taboo on consuming chachalacas by pregnant women (with implications for gender and protein as well as, perhaps, hunting pressure on these birds).

    Harald Prins’s remarks on the loon (G. immer) might also be considered in this vein: famous nocturnal vocalizers, loons were perhaps prime candidates for augury — “dark forebodings” — for the Wabanaki, as well as for a role as messengers to the culture-hero. I am curious about the source of the “strange long cry like the howl of a dog” attributed to loons by Charles Leland. Was “strangeness” the Wabanaki’s or Leland’s? By Leland’s time (the late-nineteenth century), the idea that loon calls were weird, mournful, demonic, wild, unearthly, or that they resembled wolves, was widespread in the Northeast. (Today, so complete is the equation of loons with wilderness that their calls haunt soundtracks of films set in deserts, tropical forests, and other habitats where they are unknown!) Furthermore, it is reasonable to hypothesize that by this time Wabanaki environmental perceptions reflected, at least in part, the intermingling of immigrant (non-native) environmental perceptions. Prins’s knowledge of the contemporary Wabanaki and their history leaves him in the ideal position to explore these and related matters, no doubt with his usual salutary results.

    Prins also reminds us that indigenous people are “first and foremost naturalists,” yet here also we must exercise caution, for time and again indigenous ethnoornithologies reveal that “naturalists” — as Williams remarked long ago, a complex term (see also Dove’s comments) — do not see the avian world in either a uniform or predictable manner. For example, despite oft-demonstrated encyclopedic knowledge of the environment, including birds, some indigenous people (as in eastern Indonesia and Papua New Guinea) believe that certain birds are celibate or switch sexes, that males in nature are really females and vice versa, that a falcon decapitates its prey with its wing, or that a bird produces low-pitched vocalizations with its anus.

    Such beliefs are not at all uncommon. For example, prior to the nineteenth century, the British widely anthropomorphized birds, assigned them moral characteristics, considered some auspicious and others not, and so on. British folk beliefs about birds were remarkably varied: swallow ashes were a remedy for failing sight, and a medicine of 100 swallows, castor oil, and white wine cured epilepsy; one who ate the heart of a nightingale would sleep only two hours a night; loons hatched their young through holes beneath their wings; if killed, a robin (an ill omen for many) or swallow would bring bad luck; gannets grew by their bills on certain cliffs; the comings and goings of red-throated loons forecast weather changes; goose embryos formed in the fruit of willow trees; a sparrow kept alive will bring the death of the parents of the sparrow-catcher; the bittern shone a light from its breast to see its prey, or made its booming call by inserting its bill into a reed or the mud (to some this bird was the “night raven” and was feared as an omen of death). In my research on the American South, I discovered that some categories of belief figured in the ornithology of both American Indians and immigrants from Europe — for example, the belief in augury, in certain birds with power, in transmutation, and in a primeval (viz. Noachian) deluge.

    Both Tom Dunlap, drawing on his just-finished field guide project, and Sarah Jansen raise the important issues of bird names and classifications. Dunlap points out that the names seem especially mutable through time, and in the case of raptors reflect prey bred in domestic coops and yards by their human keepers with whom they evolve — thus, chicken and pigeon and to a lesser extent, duck, hawks — and unwittingly provided lexical support for campaigns aimed at their eradication.

    Among Jansen’s provocative questions are several on the classificatory impulse posited as deeply structural (e.g. Lévi-Strauss) yet in content culturally malleable. Therefore answers to the questions (insofar as the natural world is concerned) might vary endlessly with perceptions (and purpose). If I understand Jansen fully, I agree with her on, for example, how we know if people are cued in to the same aspects of an “owl” as salient as they arrive at similar conclusions about that owl. The problem crops up not just between societies but within a society — the problem of the “omniscient informant” (find one!) or the extent to which culture is shared (more likely, not). I apologize for having been overly telegraphic on at least one matter concerning classification. By difference at the most inclusive level (rather than similarity at the lost exclusive level), I meant that, when it comes to birds, there is greater cross-cultural uniformity in distinguishing species (or monotypic genera) than in distinguishing whatever the intermediate categories between them and “bird” might be. Many indigenous taxonomies happen to be shallow. In contrast are classifications with many more layers (intermediate taxa) that developed in scientific ornithological circles — in which some periods show remarkable variation. For example, in 17–19th century Europe one taxonomist classified birds as land or water birds; land birds as carnivorous, seed-eaters, berry-eaters, or insect-eaters; seed-eaters as dust-bathers, dust and water bathers, or singing; and so on. A second classifier focused on the legs, sorting birds into those with naked legs or feathered legs, the naked legs into ones with two-toed split feet, three-toed split feet, and so on. A third ornithologist separated flying birds from running birds (ostriches etc.) on the basis of whether or not the sternum possessed a keel; distinguished among the flying birds ones of the air, the earth, the water, and the marsh; and so on. These and many other classifications had at the lowest level (terminal taxa) many of the same forms that today we would label as species, although the intermediate and higher level taxa differed fundamentally. Jansen’s questions are all productive; I especially appreciate her query about focusing on salience rather than anomaly, with regard to which, in my research on the native and non-native people of the American south, one can find several important parallels.

    Chacon, Dunlap, and Fritz Davis all wonder about owls and find entirely reasonable the putative link between the nature of owls and convergent cultural perception of owls. Davis, who is especially attentive to owls, suggests a potent, even fearsome, augural world for traditional southern Indians. The crepuscular pale barn owl with its heart-shaped face and, as he puts it, “blood curdling screech” must have been unsettling. How, he wonders, did native people negotiate this world? In the absence of much concrete data on this particular owl, drawing on data on other crepuscular and nocturnal owls, my short answer is “warily and uncomfortably.” At the very least there must always have been a range of post hoc explanations for events at the ready. Davis’s other questions are perhaps more readily answered: Raven is just one trickster figure in native North America (the other major ones are Coyote, Rabbit, “Blue Jay” [Steller’s jay?], and Mink). With regard to the relative scarcity of yellow-billed loons enhancing their value as symbols, at the time the Copper Inuit wore yellow-billed loon dance caps, their territory was probably far better known than the distribution in it of loons, but of the three present (Pacific, red-throated, and yellow-billed), the yellow-billed is by far the most capable physically of accomplishing what shamans sought when they performed.

    I thank Tony Angell not simply for underscoring the broader scope of Gwich’in-like views of ravens but for introducing the co-evolution of corvids and humans and the hypothesized “unique” companionship of corvids, as he and Marzluff have explored at some length. Corvids frequently figure significantly in bird-human interrelations in native North America — sometimes as significant other-than-human beings, sometimes as tricksters, sometimes as quite malevolent. I await with great interest Marzluff and Angell’s ongoing work on the neurobiology of the corvid brain. They make me wonder about (presumably, lesser-brained) species that have co-evolved with H. sapiens — not just chickens, ducks, geese, and other fowl, but a non-domesticated bird such as the greater honeyguide. This weak-billed bird seems to regard humans as big honey-seeking honey-badgers with the physical power to break into the trees containing hives (as well as the insects desired by the honeyguide), but who need it, the honeyguide, to guide them to the source.

    Finally are Michael Dove’s oft-fertile thoughts, this time revisiting his work in Borneo where augural birds are advantageous in settings where randomness is useful in resource management. I very much like his suggestion that in the lack of meaning can be found meaning — and that from lack of meaning arises the potential of birds as augurs. Perhaps the same can be said about prediction in birds (or in how a bone behaves on coals before used in scapulimancy): in its absence it possesses meaning. His suggestions take us back to ancient Greece and Rome, where an augur was a diviner by birds, where birds were one of the two most important categories of augurs (surpassed only, perhaps, by thunder and lightning), and where birds were watched and listened to closely for how and when and in what direction and on what side they flew or called. I wonder if certain behavioral, vocal, or other characteristics of the three most important augural Kantu’ birds — the white-rumped shama, in total length equal to an American robin but with a long tail at times cocked and a melodious call, especially at dawn and dusk; the rufous piculet, a miniscule green and rust colored woodpecker heard also near Kantu’ longhouses; and the stunningly colored scarlet-rumped trogon, which if like other trogons perches inconspicuously at length in the understory — leave them susceptible to consideration for augury. Kantu’ interpretation of augural birds seems highly individualistic (by household), but is selection of birds to listen to also variant? However these and other questions are framed or answered, Dove’s comments remind us of the widespread global distribution of augural birds, all which have specific natures brought to divination (as do Zande chickens, as mentioned by Dove, except that technically the oracle is the poison that “speaks through” [Evans-Pritchard] the fowl to which it is administered). I thank him for his insights as I do others that took the time to react to “The Nature and Culture of Birds.”

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