Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Squawk of the Wild: How one Institute historian learns history by studying birds

It is 1998 and Nancy Jacobs stands awestruck at Lake Baringo in Kenya, floored by the immense wisdom of a local bird guide. Globally known as a birdwatcher's paradise, the lake is home to more than 350 species of birds—and the guide seemed to know all of them.

"I thought, ‘how do you know all these birds?'," she recalls. "Is it what you learned from your grandparents? Is it what you learned in the countryside? Or, did you learn it from ornithological books so that you could become a guide?

"And then I thought, how do any of us know what we know?"

Ways of knowing

Jacobs, a social historian by training, focuses her studies on South African history and was one of the first in her field to deliberately focus on the environment there atop the more classical themes of race and class. She would ultimately go on to write the book Birders of Africa: History of a Network, a 325-page treatise on understanding both birds and the people who knew them well.

Nancy Jacobs interviewing
Nancy Jacobs interviews a group of locals during her research in Cameroon. Photo: Dave Jacobs

In her book, Jacobs explains that, historically, there have been three ways of knowing about birds in Africa. There is ornithology, the predominantly white, scientific discipline characterized by classification and attribution.

There is vernacular knowledge, the sometimes variable, tacit, field-based understanding of birds that exists in various forms all over the world and comprises what is important to know for everyday life. In Africa, Jacobs found that this might mean migration schedules, ways to prevent airborne attacks on farm animals, or an understanding of the one bird whose heart makes a particularly potent love charm.

And there is recreational knowledge, which includes the helpful guidance and handy tips that birders pass down to one another without necessarily knowing where those tips originated.

"I didn't want to talk about ornithology as being the 'correct' way of knowing about birds while vernacular was something secondary," says Jacobs.

In fact, vernacular experts objectively did know more than ornithologists did—about living birds.

"For the longest time, ornithology, which you'd think might be the most privileged and authoritative ways of knowing about birds, was just about classifying dead birds' bodies," she says. "Whereas the vernacular knowledge in Africa was about living animals, and something a lot closer to ecology."

Jacobs' analysis is bolstered by a series of biographies of both ornithologists and vernacular birders, whose surprisingly real and intimate relationships were made all the more complex by their existence within a powerful system of class, race, and colonial control.

"All over the world there was a difference between scientific knowledge and vernacular knowledge," she says. "But once you put race and colonialism on top, as happened in Africa, the politics become exceptionally power-laden."

For example, colonial ornithologists relied on vernacular experts, who would hunt and preserve the bodies of birds, so they could ship them back to European museums and cement their own work within a burgeoning scientific taxonomy.

At the same time, scientists were writing about the inferiority of African knowledge about nearly everything, including birds.

"Ornithologists were completely dependent on African knowledge about the birds in order to construct their own knowledge, but they had to draw lines to distinguish themselves from what they said was inferior," says Jacobs.

As they live and breathe

After publishing Birders of Africa, Jacobs set her sights on a new project: one that wouldn't be so reliant on either culturally-laden remembrances of living animals, or accessible, but lifeless, written accounts of dead birds in drawers.

African Grey Parrot
An African Grey Parrot. Photo: Pixabay

And on a sunny day at India Point Park in Providence, inspiration struck. A young man walked by, and on his shoulder sat an African Grey Parrot.

"I thought, ‘That bird is African! And that bird is here!'," she recalls. "It was like when I was at Lake Baringo and I saw the bird guide. Everything opened up."

Jacobs knew that not only did this parrot hail from the forests of Africa, where she was already accustomed to studying environmental history, but that its knack for human language made it an incredibly popular pet all over the world.

"Suddenly I thought, ‘I can write a global history of this bird'," she says. "And the bird would be alive."

As Jacobs explains, African Grey Parrots are vocal learners. And although they may not always mean what we would mean by saying certain words, they are remarkably adept at recognizing context and using human words and phrases at the "right" time.

One former owner of an African Grey recounted to Jacobs how her parrot would associate the sound of a passing train with her father's impending arrival from work and would call, ‘Polly want a drink!,' followed by a drawn-out trill reminiscent of swirling whiskey, ice, and soda.

But their fondness for people is far from innate. Breeders foster this affection by separating chicks from their parents at a young age and hand-feeding them so that they imprint on humans. This makes them animated and interactive pets, but it also induces within them an intense reliance on human partnership.

Unlike a dog, who comes into a household, locates the Alpha creature, and takes its place in the pack accordingly, parrots join a family as perceived equals through a process called pair bonding.

Cookie the African Grey
Cookie the African Grey with Mary Jo Ballator, owner of the Ash Canyon Birding Accommodation in the mountains of southeast Arizona. Photo: Dave Jacobs

"A parrot will come into your home and choose its person, and in a sense the parrot will think of that person as its mate," explains Jacobs. "And once that happens, you've got this situation with a creature that is incredibly needy, and really smart, and wants you and only you all the time."

"They are really dependent and emotionally intimate animals," she says. "Some people are able to give the birds all they ask for, but it takes a huge commitment."

Jacobs recalls tales of birds who feel starved for attention who scream, pluck out their own feathers, or even mutilate themselves.

"When they're plucked like chickens and squawking, they're not such appealing pets," she says. "The lucky ones are sent to sanctuaries, like Foster Parrots in Hope Valley, Rhode Island."

"Parrot keeping can be really tragic," she concludes.

A shifting narrative

Meanwhile, in the forests of Africa, parrots pair-bond with other parrots; but that doesn't mean that they do not interact with humans. At the Dja Faunal Reserve in central Cameroon, Jacobs interviewed forest-goers who shared their experiences with the African Grey.

"They had lived with the birds for years and observed a lot about them," she says. "They hadn't worked out analyses of standard deviations of observed data, but they could tell me stories. And stories are what I work with."

Whether warning other animals of human presence, scolding humans for straying too far into forbidden territory, or coming to a lost human's aid and guiding him home, parrots reportedly communicate intimately and effusively with other beings who share their forest.

Could it be that humans are meant to observe, and not to keep—to have relationships with the African Grey, but only at a distance?

As Jacobs explains, it isn't that simple. The late twentieth-century boom in natural resources traded from Africa included parrots and plantation crops grown on land formerly inhabited by parrots. Habitat loss and rampant trapping for the international market mean that, despite their prevalence in homes around the world, they are actually endangered in the wild. This once-wild species has become a commodity in our economy and an extension of our social networks.

"This is the African Grey Parrot's anthropocene," she says. "Every decade, a smaller and smaller proportion of the species actually lives in the wild, where the parrots control their own lives. So it's important for the future of the species that they're living with us—but we're not particularly good at caring for them."

As Jacobs explains, for centuries birds have entered into communion with people both at will and by force, and in ways that may ultimately come to define their continued existence. And they have served as the linchpin about which culturally loaded human relationships thrived.

Indeed, the birds themselves are living beings; but they are also a vehicle for greater understanding of our own species and our place amidst the complexities of history.

"Birds matter because they're subjects in relationships," she says. "When you're thinking about animal history, you can write about politics as being a multi-species negotiation. Human differences—between Africa and the rest of the world, classes, and cultures—matter a lot, but intra-human politics connect to multi-species interactions."

"You learn new things about people when you broaden your scope," she concludes, "but you also learn new things about life when you say, 'it's not only people I have to learn about.' A whole new world of the past opens up when we try to shed some of our anthropocentrism."

"And as a historian, I'm satisfied that those are good stories to tell."