Avian Drones Take Flight at the Expense of Real Birds

White billboard with black text that reads "Birds Aren't Real".

So, whether you are out bird watching or watching out for birds, keep in mind that bird may be out watching you!”

-Marcus Morton, U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory Service Release, 2021

In recent years, the popular satirical conspiracy movement Birds Aren’t Real has gained traction among left-leaning Millennials and Gen Z for their bold claim that birds do not exist and all birds that you see are actually government drones spying on you and other civilians. Birds Aren’t Real pokes fun at the far-fetched, far-right paranoid conspiracies that amass cult-like public followings, such as QAnon or “the Illuminati.”

Ironically, however, the group was founded in 2017, just a few years after drone designers, particularly military contractors, began to develop drones that resemble, but more importantly, mimic birds and their movements. While yes, birds are certainly real, Birds Aren’t Real draws our attention to the ways that the United States government, or really any government structured upon settler colonialism and white supremacy, views the “non-human” world as not real—that is not as living, breathing creatures but as resources ripe for the taking, using, and destroying.

A 2022 report shared that, in the U.S. alone, 259 bird species are in decline. That is more than half of all species in the country. Compounding that, a 2019 study found that bird populations have decreased by almost 3 billion since 1970 in the U.S. and Canada. These concerning numbers are largely the result of habitat loss and human-induced environmental degradation.

Satirical conspiracies aside, there is an obvious link between this massive loss in biodiversity, droned birds, and state power: the U.S. military is one of the biggest environmental threats and destroyers of ecosystems in the world. Bird populations in Guam have greatly declined due to an invasive species, the brown tree snake that is suspected to have been introduced by the U.S. military. Due to the rapid loss of bird biodiversity, the forests of Guam have suffered from the lack of seed distribution typically carried out by native birds. Take another example, as of 2021, the U.S. Navy was developing drones with the sole purpose of destroying bird eggs near their airfields,

The difference between imitating and literally robotizing nature has been lost in some recent developments in the world of dronifying birds.

The appeal of the droned bird should be considered alongside settler colonial fantasies of dewilding—a process of control via mimicry by which life is refused its autonomy to benefit the settler colonial military state. Settler colonialism must be accounted for in discussions about the military’s destructive impact on the environment. Militarized force enables the materialization of white settler colonial ideology that views all land, and by extension its Indigenous human and non-human inhabitants, as property. This ideology is what Indigenous feminist Aileen Moreton-Robinson calls “white possessive.”

Whereas birds often embody the freedom of movement, the biology of birds is captured and copied for the benefit of surveillance and commercial gain. To the settler military state, dewilding birds via droned birds is critical to reproducing the white possessive ideology upon the more-than-human world, particularly at a time when actual birds are pushed into endangerment and extinction.

Drone Vision: Seeing Like a Settler

To understand what I call droned birds and their implications, we must understand that drone vision operates in two interconnected modalities: one of actual technical capacity and one of fantasy for the beholder. Drone vision is oft described as operating like a “bird’s eye view,” where the ground below is entirely visible yet distant. Drones are equipped with sensors that allow for different kinds of seeing and data collection beyond optical sight and a strictly horizontal aerial view, such as thermal imaging, picking up noises, and detecting various types of movements around the drone.

A multi-rotor drone hovers in an open sky. Photo by George Kroeker, 2018.

The technical capacity of drones is frequently overshadowed by the fantasy of drone vision—that is, the psychic experience it offers drone operators and consumers. Via the drone, users can inhabit a god-like perspective where they can see everything at once, but nobody can ever see them. This perspective “ultimately renders accountability invisible” by keeping drone operators hidden, without faces or voices, projecting power through the drone.

The fantasy of drone vision is deeply intertwined with the Euro-American colonial obsession with claiming power by occupying the aerial, an obsession most famously marked by the advent of military airfare and cartography. With its military origins, drone vision “conjugate[s] vision with annihilation,” or at least its potential, as military perception and drone expert Antione Bousquet has put it.

Drone vision is a prime example of what Nicholas Mirzoeff calls “white sight.” As a process of visualization and an ongoing event, white sight first eliminates or evacuates the innate characteristics and uniqueness of whatever it chooses—animals, land, peoples, etc. Next, it projects its own associations onto the missing space it created. Mirzoeff directly links the “event” of white sight to the colonizing acts of Europe and plantation slavery where land—and all its inhabitants—is erased of its Indigenous associations and turned into property alongside enslaved peoples.

In 1907, Dr. Julius Neubronner pioneered the pigeon camera, a breakthrough device in aerial photography that was later adopted for military use. Photo by jwyg, 2011.

A tangible example of the links between white sight, drone vision, and birds comes from Heba Amin’s expansive work into the ways that Western aerial surveillance has generated paranoia and distrust around actual birds in the Middle East. Alongside Amin’s project, Anthony Downey traced how inventions such as pigeon photography (the attaching of cameras to pigeons; turning pigeons into tools) can be considered precursors to aerial visualizing technologies such as drones.

Further, just a few years ago, marine biologists and fisheries in France and New Zealand came together to test a method to identify illegal fishing boats: albatrosses fitted with radar detection devices. One of the marine biologists involved in the design described these birds harnessed for policing as follows: “They’re like drones, only intelligent.” These “albatross cops,” as one journalist called them, reflect the impulse of white sight that projects its desires and needs onto the human and more-than-human world for projects of securing and policing social order.

Droned bird models have become available directly to individual consumers. The French company BionicBird offers two biomimetic models: the MetaFly and the MetaBird. On their product pages, the BionicBird website attempts to captivate consumers’ purchasing desire with taglines like “Take control of a flying creature!” and “Rediscover the sensation of flying!”. Given the multifaceted, ambivalent moral stature of these droned birds, it is of little surprise that the rhetoric of taglines—“take control of flying creature”—captures an ethos similar to settler fantasies of control and extraction of the natural world for personal gain, including pleasure.

I propose that we consider droned birds as a method of dewilding wherein white sight blurs the distinction between drone and bird in the settler military imaginary. The result is the image of a bird that not only can be made docile and therefore controllable, but that is seen as inherently docile and controllable. This threat is evident in cases where droned birds are key to “managing” wildlife by driving birds out of their natural habitats for the benefit of commerce and producing neater boundaries between human and more-than-human.

Dewilding birds via droned birds is critical to reproducing the white possessive ideology upon the more-than-human world.

The Dutch technology company “The Drone Bird” has pioneered the use of bird-inspired drone models to be used in wildlife management, including conservation and what they call bird monitoring in “airports, in the oil & gas industry, and in agriculture.” The Droned Bird sells two hyper realistic-looking droned bird models directly to consumers: the Falcon and the Larus, each resembling the shape and flapping wing function of the birds of their respective namesake.

The company website boasts about how the newer AVES Larus model is “virtually undetectable and indistinguishable from the real thing, for both humans and animals.” The website says similar things about the Falcon model, which, in their words, makes it “one of the most safe, humane, effective forms of bird control.” The bird control in question typically includes using the bird drones to scare off other birds that are marked as pests or threats to human activities. There seems to be little question about whether such bird “control” should occur at all. In such uses, the droned bird is used to dewild bird habitats and therefore manufacture the spatialization of the imagined human and nonhuman binary.

The company sells these exact same models for the purposes of what they call “unobtrusive surveillance” in “border control, police, defense, and special forces”—exactly the kinds of uses the Bird Aren’t Reals movement satirizes—as well as “special productions” like movies and television. 
The diversity of applications here is alarming because mundane and even entertaining sights of droned birds may distract from the settler ways of seeing—and acting—that they promote and enable.

Biomimicry and the Roboticization of Life

The droned birds these companies market are the product of biomimetic design, which emulates “nature’s forms, processes, and ecosystems,” per the RISD Nature Lab.

Biomimetics is a polarizing field. It brings together designers, roboticists, biologists, and more, all with the shared belief that the natural world may help us humans to solve pressing scientific issues and design a more nature-attuned world. But critics accuse the field of reducing non-humans to a set of parts, valued for their functionality and utility, and taking biomimetic designs out of the original context by which they were inspired. Despite its promises and many biomimetic designers’ intentions to produce technologies that do not disturb the environment, the actual applications and impacts of biomimicry differ greatly. It is difficult to see how biomimicry, when paired with a technology with violent associations like the drone, is anything more than another instance of “weaponizing of nature,” as Shoshana Magnet has said.

A sculpture of two crows with surveillance cameras attached to their bodies. Photo by Kristof Vrancken, 2016.

Even the notion of imitating life is suspect due to the ways that imitation and mimicry are key strategies for reproducing white supremacy and settler colonial dominance. It is unsurprising, then, that the field has come to play a significant role in military robotics and weapons development. The National Science Foundation has recently, though not for the first time, funded projects to study bird flight with the goal of developing drones more capable of moving in complex aerial environments. University engineering programs also frequently support military technology by examining the flight mechanisms of animals and insects that hold the most promise for military purposes. These uptakes of biomimetics indicate its appeal to the settler military state and its desired ends.

The difference between imitating and literally robotizing nature has been lost in some recent developments in the world of dronifying birds. A research team at the New Mexico Institute of Mining found a way to utilize parts of taxidermized birds. To avoid harming live birds, the team partners with local taxidermy artists to repurpose dead birds for their drone models, attaching feathers and other body parts to motors and mechanical wings.

What we see here is perhaps the most direct, and visually disturbing, example of the appropriation of the more-than-human world for explicitly human ends, which here, once again, is wildlife management. Since typical drones are rather loud and appear quite foreign to wildlife, quieter and more “natural” looking drones are thought to alleviate those points of tension, making them superior replacements to existing drone models used in wildlife surveillance and management. The research team also noted that these models, while primarily designed for wildlife monitoring, could one day be useful for military use.

Naturalizing Animal-Machines

Shoshana Magnet has aptly referred to biomimetic inventions as “animal-machines,” which, in my reading, allows us to grasp how the skill, intelligence, and images of animals are captured by humans and transposed into machines. Or, in the case of taxidermied droned birds, literally captured and turned into machines. Animal-machines are tethered to the Western robotic imagination that sees machines as mere tools to aid human superiority and domination. I refer to drones designed to look like and mimic birds as “droned birds” as a way to emphasize “drone” as a technology and a process of inflicting passiveness: the roboticization and therefore dewilding of life.

Drone modeled in the likeness of a herring gull. Photo by Festo AG & Co. KG, CC-M, M. Kiemen, 2011.

Feminist political geographer Anna Jackman has observed that droned birds are part of a larger trend in drone design, especially in the defense industry, to “normalize” the drone by associating it with visual connotations of nature and the natural world. Jackman is right to ask what is naturalized when the drone is naturalized. Some bird-inspired drone models are so realistic looking that it might even be difficult for an unknowing person to tell bird from drone, raising the specter of surveillance, as well as apprehensions about the appropriation of ideas of natural and nature.

Along with the “naturalization”of drone surveillance, there are also questions about how public imaginaries of birds and the rest of the more-than-human world may change by producing animal-machines. We can glean indications of these changes by, as I’ve argued here, situating the droned birds within the longer histories of white sight and settler military colonialism.

The combination of drones’ and biomimetics’ focus on the utility of the more-than-human world paints a dark picture where birds are hierarchically classified based on use-value as well as the desires and needs of the military-industrial complex and the settler colonial state. In addition to their multifaceted applications from policing to leisure, droned birds imply a particularly concerning future for transparency in drone applications. Whereas typical drones already pose numerous threats to privacy, airspace regulation, and security, droned birds might be even more sinister. They obscure human intervention via mimicry and, in the process, pose serious questions about the ethics of human-animal relations and the future of settler colonialism.

Featured Image: A billboard sponsored by the Birds Aren’t Real movement that reads, “Birds Aren’t Real,” in bold text. A cluster of birds is perched on top of the sign. Photo by Andrewj0131, 2019.

Dr. Amy Gaeta is a Research Associate at the Leverhulme Center for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge. She uses feminist theory and critical disability studies to analyze the emotional, aesthetic, and political dimensions of human-tech relations, especially those concerning consumer drones. Gaeta’s research is deeply concerned with how semi-autonomous technologies impact the formation of subjecthood and ideas of humanness. Contact.