In early days, the world was viewed as a smorgasbord of food and building resources. Everything man saw was his for the taking. Animals were food, trees were only steps away from being houses and the ground was laden with precious metals. Collecting and naming new species of birds was arguably the first transition from eating nature to admiring and documenting it. Being a naturalist meant collecting new bird species from exotic far-away lands and bringing them back to European home towns for analysis and display in collections. I always think back to Alfred Russel Wallace, collecting birds around the Amazon and not once, but twice, experiencing his ship catching alight on his way home to London. Maybe if he didn’t have so many disasters, he could have beat Darwin in the race to unveil the theory of evolution.
As technology evolved, shooting birds with guns transitioned into shooting birds with cameras. Stuffed bird collections transitioned into photo albums full of stunning birds from around the world. To this day, people such as myself carry on the naturalist tradition of capturing our own collections of wild bird species and appreciating their different forms from behind our lenses. As a keen bird photographer, I often consider bird species to be collectors’ items, with some species considered more prized than others. I understand the Pokémon mentality of “Gotta catch em all” as there are so many different shapes, sizes and colours to uncover.
Naturalists soon evolved into modern day biologists and conservationists who uncover millions more species than of avian varieties. However, unless you are one of these specialised individuals in elephant dung analysis, seahorse pregnancy behaviour or jewel beetle morphologies, it is unlikely that your time spent experiencing nature takes up a great proportion of your life- but here is where we come full circle. Birds are the most accessible aspect of nature for people living in dense city high rises, rural towns or suburban housing estates. Birds come to our houses, sit on our fences and chirp from our trees to an extent whereby birds are cutting through our technologically saturated lives and are perking human interest in nature once again. In some instances, birds are people’s only connection to nature. Watching rainbow lorikeets feeding outside the kitchen window or hearing the kookaburra’s iconic laugh is now re-engaging the world with our environment. Birds begun the naturalist trend, and when we lost our way, birds are once again re-engaging us with natural connections.
This year I have tried to uncover as much as possible about birds from their social and natural history, to their behaviour, intelligence, anatomy and how humans interact and consider them. I initially wanted to know why I was so fascinated by birds, but the more I learned, the more I realised that there are probably more people fascinated with birds than people who have never considered them. Modern day quails have told palaeontologists how flight evolved, geese, swans and cuckoos told linguists how the English language has evolved and cockatoos taught Alfred Russel Wallace how the continents were once connected. Discovering the same bird species in Australia and Asia, Wallace finally received some credit for the aptly named “Wallace Line” which separates the two continents in a way that groups similar species found across both regions. After so many flaming ship disasters, birds came through for Wallace even though it was not in the initial way he intended.
To conclude, if you secretly feed birds in your backyard, find yourself lost in thought looking at a pigeon pecking at the ground or stop to admire the bright pink breast of a galah, you are not alone. For centuries, millions of humans all over the world have used birds as a gateway drug to uncover the rest of what the natural world has to offer. From understanding human speech from birdsong to canaries in coal mines, I dare you to find a subset of human culture where birds have not had an influence. How special must a creature be to have shaped our lives so intensely, even if most of us have never realised until now.