Feathered Friends

After the previous post, I was interested to see a short piece over at The New Yorker about basically the same idea—of spotting invasive species in the backgrounds of films and television shows, but, there, applied much more broadly to art history.

The article, by Rebecca Mead, looks at the unexpected presence of a cockatoo in an image by Italian Renaissance-era painter Andrea Mantegna, as the bird’s “native habitat is restricted to Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Philippines.” How did it get to 15th-century Italy—and more specifically, Mead asks, “what did the bird’s presence reveal about the connections between an Italian city and distant forests that lay beyond the world known to Europeans?”

[Image: A cockatoo in the background of Andrea Mantegna’s “Madonna della Vittoria” (1496), via Wikimedia.]

It’s a fun read, and includes a final archival detail I’ll mention briefly—I am particularly obsessed with rare finds in archives, to be honest, and this is a good one. It turns out that Mantegna’s painting was not the first depiction of a cockatoo in European art history. Instead, a manuscript hidden away in a Vatican library included an even earlier representation, made in the mid-1200s. Art history as forensic ecology.

Little creatures popping up in paintings and films, in engravings and TV shows, their presence there indicating larger tides of trade or climate change, acting as a strange barometer of the natural world.

(Related: Check the Sonic.)

Check the Sonic

[Image: From episode 9 of Patriot, courtesy Amazon Studios.]

This is incredibly random, and is perhaps indisputable evidence that I have fallen head over heels for mourning doves, but I’ve begun noticing, in the backgrounds of various films and TV shows, when mourning doves can be heard cooing—for example, in the new Doug Liman film, Locked Down, there is at least one scene where you can clearly hear a mourning dove singing in a London street.

Recall those recent acoustic studies of cities during the coronavirus lockdown that showed that, among other things, birds no longer had to struggle to be heard over the relentless noise of cars and industrial activity.

The Locked Down mourning dove was presumably a beneficiary of this larger acoustic change—yet it will never know it’s now an international celebrity! Maybe, if you live in London, you’ve even heard the same bird.

[Image: From episode 9 of Patriot, courtesy Amazon Studios.]

On the flipside of this, however, I was watching episode 9 of Amazon’s show Patriot the other night when I noticed the call of a Eurasian collared dove somewhere in the background, cooing in the woods. If the fictional setting of that scene is also where it was filmed, then this means Eurasian collared doves are alive and well in the forests of Wisconsin—an absurdly uninteresting point to raise if not for the fact that those doves are an introduced, invasive species.

It occurred to me, then, that you could potentially track invasive species—birds, insects, plants—by way of their unacknowledged appearance in the backgrounds of international film and TV projects.

Think of the scene in W. G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, where a character freezes a video and zooms in on a woman just barely visible in the background, concluding that he is, in fact, looking at the face of his own long-lost mother—indeed the only image he now has of her, this fleeting appearance in the shadows of a film that was actually about something else entirely.

Now imagine that on the scale of an entire ecosystem: a rarely seen bird flashes by behind a character in a blur of color and song, a single tree in a clearing beside two actors, its presence there indicating previously unnoticed changes in soil alkalinity or regional temperatures.

In other words, you could map the spread of invasive species, not to mention the effects of climate change, by noting what creatures pop up, however briefly, in the background of films shot in ecologically transitional regions of the world—an archive of climate effects and landscape futures hiding in plain sight, waiting to be noticed by the right researcher.

[Note: If you’re now desperate to see pictures of mourning doves, I’ve got you covered.]

Birds and Burglary

I’ve become obsessed with birds over the past year of lockdown, after a mourning dove couple began nesting directly outside our kitchen window. We saw the doves every day, patiently handing off their nest roles each morning and evening, cooperatively raising a little one—unsuccessfully, sadly—and pecking around for seeds and nesting material on the ground. (You can see many, many pics of the doves, if you’re so inclined, over on @highlandparkdoves.) So far this year, they have not returned to nest again.

To my friends’ baffled disinterest, meanwhile, I have fallen head over heels for incredibly common birds—species like mourning doves (the greatest birds, my friends), house sparrows (so numerous, people treat them like pests), house finches, and California towhees (ugly little brown birds that act so strangely—or at least the ones living near our house do—that they are close to mourning doves in my level of obsession). More than once, following vaccination, I have sat with friends outside in our backyard absolutely losing my mind at how adorable all the towhees, sparrows, and mourning doves are as they fly in to get seeds and water, only to realize that everyone else is looking at me as if it’s finally time for this party to end…

In any case, the idea that my interest in unspectacular bird species might have something in common with my other interests, such as burglary, never really crossed my mind, to be honest, but I keep thinking about two recent stories I thought I’d post here briefly.

One was a minor post by Audobon about birds using shopping carts as cover for sneaking into grocery stores. “Birds,” we read, “have been known to linger in them like Greeks in the Trojan Horse.” You push a line of carts through the automatic doors, unaware of the little winged invaders hidden inside, and they quickly spread out, looking for rafters, food, and perhaps a cold Modelo or two.

The other is the allegedly true story of how Eurasian collared doves arrived in North America. The story goes that, back in the 1970s, a pet store somewhere in the Bahamas was burglarized and a few collared doves managed to escape; the owner subsequently freed the rest of his collared doves and, within a few years, they had made it across to Florida. Forty years later, Eurasian collared doves are now found all over the United States—including here where I live in Los Angeles.

[Image: A Eurasian collared dove swoops in to say hello; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

A few weeks ago, my wife and I noticed the subtly different coo of a Eurasian collared dove coming from somewhere nearby in our neighborhood, a song that only got louder and louder—that is, closer and closer to our house—over the weeks to come. Then, just yesterday afternoon, a slightly lost-looking Eurasian collared dove landed in our backyard, hoping for seed. (Said curious bird appears in the image, above.) From escaped cousins in the Bahamas to Southern California—via burglary.

Tying everyday common bird species back to true crime is, I’m now hoping, a good way to get my friends—and you!—interested in these little beauties. Avian crime! Birds and burglary! In fact, it brings to mind Laurel Braitman’s great story about Echo, the parrot in a witness-protection program.

(Vaguely related further bird content: Acoustic Archaeology.)

Acoustic Archaeology

In her new book, The Bird Way, Jennifer Ackerman describes Australian lyrebirds as audio archaeologists, birds capable of keeping lost songs and soundscapes alive across multiple generations even as local ecologies change.

She describes a group of lyrebirds captured in one part of Australia and later released in Tasmania. “The birds continued mimicking birdcalls from their old landscape for many years,” Ackerman writes. “Thirty years after they were released, their descendants were said to be imitating birds never present on the island, such as pilotbirds and whipbirds,” thus offering what Ackerman calls “compelling proof of cultural transmission, one generation passing on knowledge to the next.”

For Ana Dalziell, a lyrebird-expert Ackerman meets out in the field, this makes lyrebirds “archivists of soundscapes.”

[Image: Painting of a lyrebird by John Gould, courtesy archive.org.]

The idea that the acoustics of no-longer-existing landscapes are being passed down socially through generations of songbirds is incredible, as well as suggestive of a possible tool by which landscape historians could attempt the sonic reconstructing lost environments.

The sounds of old elevators or HVAC systems in a now-destroyed building—perhaps even a demolished work by a globally renowned architect, her building now known only through acoustic after-effects, its buzzes and whirs still passed tree to tree—still being imitated by local songbirds; or the sounds of wind passing through now-extinct trees, or trees lost to recent wildfires, still being reproduced by local songbirds; or the sounds of ground-dwelling predators who are not extinct, but have nevertheless moved on to other parts of Australia, still popping up as acoustic imitations: an audio archaeology based entirely in the communal surround-sound of social singers.

You want to hear the sounds of lost buildings or extinct landscapes, and merely need to head deep into the trees, listening to lyrebirds along the way.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for giving me The Bird Way!)

Cross-Species Infrastructure

[Image: From “Assimilation” by Dillon Marsh].

I mentioned in the previous post the work of South African photographer Dillon Marsh, whose “Landscape Series” seeks “to find things that are out of the ordinary, picking them out of the landscape where they might otherwise blend in. I choose objects that can be found in multitude within their environment so that I can depict a family of objects in a series of photographs. By displaying each project as such, I feel I am able to show both the character of the individual members, and the characteristics that make these objects a family.”

[Image: From “Assimilation” by Dillon Marsh].

Marsh’s photos seen here were seemingly everywhere on the internet a few weeks ago, but I thought I’d post them nonetheless, as they’re not only interesting images in and of themselves, but they depict one of my favorite topics: human infrastructure claimed—or assimilated, in Marsh’s words—by nonhuman species, other builders and users of artificial environments, who construct their own homes on those underlying skeletons.

[Images: From “Assimilation” by Dillon Marsh].

It is an architecture of infestation, of creative reuse across species lines.

[Images: From “Assimilation” by Dillon Marsh].

So what is all this, more specifically? As Marsh explains, “In the vast barren landscapes of the southern Kalahari, Sociable Weaver Birds assume ownership of the telephone poles that cut across their habitat. Their burgeoning nests are at once inertly statuesque and teeming with life. The twigs and grass collected to build these nests combine to give strangely recognisable personalities to the otherwise inanimate poles.”

[Images: From “Assimilation” by Dillon Marsh].

Seen one way, these photos depict an entire form of architecture reduced to ornament, mere biological decoration; seen another, they just as powerfully reveal how the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential additions to the built environment—incremental 3D fabrics of twigs, grass, and weeds—serve to augment that built environment through inhuman architectural means.