The Black Birders Who Made White Ornithologists Famous

Painting of two ostriches

Nancy J. Jacobs, Birders of Africa: History of a Network, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016)

In her new book, Birders of Africa: History of a Network, Nancy Jacobs shows us that there is more than one way to be a birder and to think about the world through birds. Jacobs’ history of birds, birders, and birding in Africa helps us better understand the interplay between science, imperialism, and the natural world in both the past and present. Yet readers anticipating a story of intrepid foreign birdwatchers taking delight in the avian glories of Africa will be sorely disappointed. Jacobs’ birders are as likely to deftly capture, kill, and stuff the birds of Africa as they are to admire their beauty or meditate on their melodies.

Birds are charismatic creatures that have been at the forefront of both environmentalism and environmental history. Their disappearance introduced to us the frightening notion of species extinction; bird carcasses on the hats of fashionable ladies spawned one of the world’s first conservation societies; and the silence of birds inspired Rachel Carson to write, arguably, the most influential environmental treatise of the twentieth century. As these examples illustrate, human/bird interactions are as varied as they are complex. We can easily discern their sociability, their courtship rituals and careful (if not tender) parenting. We can appreciate their creativity and intelligence as they weave nests and communicate with one another. We tune in and out over the course of our days to the constant cacophony they create in country and city alike. There are many among us who take great pleasure in observing and thinking about this rich world of birds, and many who look to the ecological well-being of avian communities as a harbinger of the well-being of the planet.

But what, Jacobs asks, can we learn about the world and about the past by observing the birders themselves?

Camps like this were one of the sites where, Jacobs argues, many kinds of bird knowledge was shared, preserved, and produced

Camps like this were one of the sites where, Jacobs argues, many kinds of bird knowledge were shared, preserved, and produced. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Americans typically think of birding as a somewhat highbrow activity and the birder as the enthusiastic, khaki-clad, binoculared amateur. Jacobs asks us to broaden the term to include not just recreational birdwatchers, but, borrowing a phrase from the American photojournalist and “avitourism” specialist Ted Lee Eubanks, “anyone who finds their way to nature through birds.” As Jacobs reminds the reader in her introduction, observing the presence, behavior, and movement of birds remains “an every day rural act.”

Jacobs’ work provides a more inclusive definition of birders and birding than the stereotype, and her approach bears fruit. In the African historical context that Jacobs examines, broadening the definition of birding brings into focus the work of African “vernacular” birders who located, collected, and preserved specimens for more-typically-studied “scientific birders,” elite European, Euro-African, and American ornithologists (or, in earlier periods, bird-minded natural historians). Drawing upon actor-network theory from science and technology studies to help situate the interactions among diverse groups of humans, non-humans, and the production of knowledge, Birders of Africa uses birders, birding, and the birds themselves to explore the relationships between vernacular knowledge and science, race and authority, and colonial subjects and imperial governments from the early sixteenth century to the present.

A bird skin specimen collected by English civil servant and ornithologist R.E. Moreau in the 1930s, likely with the aid of his chief vernacular birding collaborator, Salimu Asmani.. Image from wiki commons.

A bird skin specimen collected by English civil servant and ornithologist R.E. Moreau in the 1930s, likely with the aid of his chief vernacular birding collaborator, Salimu Asmani. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Opening not with a guide to the birds of Africa but with a guide to the birders of Africa, Jacobs lays out three kinds of birders and bird knowledge (vernacular, ornithological, and recreational) and three nodes of interaction among them (talking and writing, finding and collecting birds, and preserving the bodies of birds as specimens.) The majority of the book focuses on vernacular birders, and Jacobs devotes much of her introduction to explaining her rationale for using the term vernacular, rather than “local” or “indigenous,” neither of which leave enough room for the geographic or ethnographic breadth of this type of birder. Like other forms of vernacular science across the globe, vernacular birding knowledge in Africa tended to stem from practical concerns, usually related to farming, hunting, or medicine, as well as cultural and religious traditions. Such knowledge was rarely considered legitimate by imperial authorities or European/American scientific audiences, or even fully appreciated by ornithological birders in Africa. Yet the forms of knowledge produced and preserved by vernacular birders were and are essential to the ways we understand the world of birds.

Vernacular birding traditions in Africa often stemmed from cultural practices relying upon the bodies of birds. Image from wikimedia commons.

Vernacular birding traditions in Africa often stemmed from cultural practices relying upon the bodies of birds. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the book, Jacobs highlights the “asymmetries of knowledge” in Empire, reminding her readers that the relationships among vernacular, ornithological, and, later, recreational birders were not only forged by a shared proclivity towards birds, but by the assertion of colonial domination. The context for these cross-cultural birder networks was, she writes, “a global history full of friction and disempowerment.” Jacobs sets out to recover the contributions of vernacular birders that were lost along the way.

Archival ingenuity has been a hallmark of both African history and environmental history, and in Birders of Africa Jacobs navigates a rich, if untraditional, archive of vernacular birding. Because this archive was rarely preserved on paper, Jacobs relies upon oral histories to highlight continuities between the material presence and cultural meanings of birds in the past and the present, what she calls the “ethnographic past perfect.” In later chapters, Jacobs shows us that, while the names and contributions of vernacular birders were almost always omitted from the resulting scientific collections (in books and museums), their contributions rarely went unnoticed in the writings (published and unpublished) of the ornithological birders who relied upon them. Jacobs combines these extractions with interviews with vernacular birders and their descendants and admirers, to begin to rectify the asymmetries of colonial science.

Bird skin specimen from a late nineteenth century birding expedition in Tanzania. Image from wikimedia commons.

Bird skin specimen from a late nineteenth century birding expedition in Tanzania. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Birders of Africa is divided into two parts: Part One explores the evolution of vernacular birding in Africa and its relationship to the development of ornithology beginning in the early eighteenth century, and Part Two examines in detail these vernacular/ornithological collaborations in the twentieth century. The first chapter traces the material and cultural place of birds and bird knowledge in African societies from the pre-colonial past to the present, as well as the socio-cultural status of bird experts. Next, Jacobs chronicles early European encounters with African birds and birders and the incorporation of African bird knowledge into cultures of natural history in early modern Europe, arguing that particularly virulent expressions of anti-black racism, particularly in the Dutch Cape, fostered shallow and fragile, though not unproductive, birder networks. The next two chapters lay out the collaboration and conflict between vernacular and ornithological birders and birding traditions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, demonstrating how vernacular forms of knowledge were racialized, imperialized, and, in the end, often suppressed. In the second half of the book, Jacobs shows how ornithologists in several colonial contexts came to understand their dependence on African vernacular birders in relation to imperial and racial hierarchies while impressing upon the reader the ways in which vernacular birders asserted, to varying degrees of success, their expertise into the imperial ornithological traditions set up to exclude them.

Another example of vernacular birding traditions using the bodies of birds. Image from wikimedia commons.

Another example of vernacular birding traditions using the bodies of birds. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The final chapter, “Birding Revolutions,” brings us into the birding present, outlining the evolution of the vernacular, ornithological, and recreational birder relationships during and after decolonization. Jacobs argues in this final chapter that decolonization reconfigured birder networks in Africa away from the vernacular birder/descriptive ornithologist coupling, and towards a new way of birding, the one most familiar to us today: recreational birding. As ornithologists came to rely less and less on local birders, avi-tourism in Africa created new professional opportunities for vernacular birders, not to help capture and kill, but to relate birdlore and facilitate euphoric encounters between rare birds and the visiting birders. These newcomers have re-energized birder networks, Jacobs argues, and shown that human beings are still deeply invested in connecting with birds and “though them, with one another.”

As an environmental historian of the colonial Cape (amongst other former British colonies), I admire in this book what I admire about Jacob’s previous work on colonial environments in South Africa: precise historical arguments, a deep and innovative archival base, and a profound sense of place, conveyed through tight, beautiful prose. In this important new work, Jacobs helps decolonize our notions of the production of scientific knowledge, demanding that we recognize the critical contributions of African men (and perhaps women) to ornithology, contributions that were rarely acknowledged in public records. But she also shows us how decolonization has shaped the future of the production of scientific knowledge in Africa, pointing to new cultural, social, and economic collaborations that have redefined and refortified birder networks in Africa in the last half-century. Jacobs asks us to consider not just the conservation of individual birds or bird communities, but the preservation and protection of this network of birders, a space for “the intersection of all traditions of birders, with one another and the birds.”

Birds may be a pathway by which humans “find their way to nature,” but, as Jacobs shows us, birds can also be how we find our way into our own histories.

A Tanzanian guide at leading a dawn birdwatching trip. Image from wikimedia commons.

A bird guide leading a dawn birdwatching trip at Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Featured Image: Ostriches in a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Maura Capps is a A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Humanities and the Department of History and a Community Associate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Culture, History, and the Environment. Her comparative work examines the fate of mixed farming (and its associated biota) across Britain’s settler empire in Africa and Australasia in the long nineteenth century. TwitterContact.

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