For the Birds: Beauty in Human-Avian Companion Agency


Nicole Miller

#II. inside animals / animals inside

ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the bird

spring, 2022


1) Detail from The Luttrell Psalter, British Library Add MS 42130 (medieval manuscript,1325-1340), f58v. 2) untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Philosopher Vinciane Despret introduces the idea of “companion agents” as animals that are agentic actors in a web of interrelations with other creatures. The web of interrelations necessitates a reciprocally dependent relationship where cooperation or resistance can occur.[i] Despret exemplifies this relationship with an experiment about cats who quickly learned how to fulfill the researchers’ goals but then refused to cooperate any further once they realized it was what the researchers desired. It is notable that animal agency exerted through resistance is often directed towards human imposition of work, as if the drive to work is against animal will. Within the framework of companion agency, a heterarchy of influence can be seen in human-animal relations. It is specifically evident in the relationship between humans and pet birds where both humans and birds have the power to sculpt the relationship and the social situation, which is often done through play. 

By allowing animals into our homes, allowing them to be seen as more human, their capacities and ours are extended past their categorical limitations. Friedrich Schiller famously asserted that play is a state achieved by humans and which makes one human.[ii] Today we know that animals also have the ability to play, which seems at times more developed than ours considering the amount of time we devote to work. When animals move into our homes and we start to play with them, a number of things change in our relationships. We become comfortable with them, building an intimacy and trust with them, while becoming more attentive to their moods and desires. Increased daily interaction means we build bonds with them, much like we might with a coworker, a family member or a friend. Eventually we start to understand our pets as subjects much like humans. Finally, and what I am most interested in, we can start to understand them as co-participants in creating moods, situations and worlds. The act of play with the trust and mutual affection it implies, allows the borders of the cage to be momentarily dissolved in a heterarchical relationship. 

The concept of social aesthetics and its focus on the beauty of interactions allows aesthetics to be processual. A shifting human-avian relationship, due to the nature of its interactivity and entanglement, must be called social by nature. Philosopher Arnold Berleant emphasizes that nonhierarchical relationships, aspects of interactive performativity and an underlying element of harmony are essential to achieving an ideal social aesthetic.[iii] In bending our world to better include birds as well as affecting and being affected by the bird world with our human interventions, the idea of  human-avian companion agency could in its best form represent these ideals.

The companion agency relationship can in itself be beautiful, and this can be seen through an increased play dialogue between pet birds and humans, resulting in adaptations and points of mutual meeting in each other’s previously distant lifeworlds. There is an adaptability necessary in activities like competition, training, and play, necessitating both subjects to extend the boundaries of their worlds to better include each other; this flexibility serves as a focal point for aesthetic examination. Additionally, the cooperation between pet birds and humans results in something akin to artworks – aesthetic material products that come into existence as a result of the playing between them – giving a concrete form through which to recognize the human-pet bird relationship.

Three groups of pet birds in particular are useful for observing a human-avian social aesthetic: homing pigeons, songbirds, and parrots. There is a gradient of birds as companion agents where increased interactions facilitates play and the mutuality of the relationship increases with each interaction. They each exemplify a different level of human intertwinement ranging from the light game playing interactions of humans and racing pigeons to the completely dependent relations of humans and pet parrots in which parrots assume a role similar to another human. The interactions of humans and pet birds demonstrate an aesthetically beautiful flexibility in humans and birds to shift their lifeworlds to include each other.

Homing Pigeons/Racing Pigeons: Otherwise known as Regular Pigeons if they Don’t Come Home

Pigeons provide an opportunity to observe a shift in domesticating birds for human pleasure.  Pigeons are not typically thought of as pets, but their urban presence marks a shift towards increased interconnection with humans. Additionally, pigeons have historically been brought into the house for specific purposes ranging from function to pleasure. For thousands of years homing pigeons were trained to make journeys back home when being released farther and farther away.  They were used to deliver messages, and they worked to set up an infrastructure for exchanging information at (relatively) quick speeds.[iv] Pigeons were the predecessor of the modern day post office or internet.  In other words, Western society created a permanent infrastructure that was heavily influenced by human-avian relationships. 

In 19th century France breeding and training pigeons became popularized for an activity loosely labeled as ‘sport’ – pigeon racing. Pigeon racing entailed a competitive aspect centered around the speed of returning home. The frame of competition created a condition for play between humans and pigeons. French racing pigeons could not really be considered pets in the sense that we often associate with the term today. They were often given away and sometimes eaten by their owners if they were poor performers (ie. not fast enough).[v] This is abnormal for the common conception of a pet, which in many cultures is now synonymous with being part of the family. However, the spirit of cooperation and consistent interaction involved in training a pigeon reflects an intimate relationship between a human and an animal. If a pigeon is trained to learn that their home is the same as their trainer’s, it can be argued they are no longer wild, but part of the family, sharing a common address as well as sense of belonging. At the same time, in pigeon racing as in message delivering, it is not uncommon for a pigeon to disappear. The unexpected agency of a trained animal that never returns home challenges the idea that humans are in complete control of the natural world or of their pet relationships.  

Songbirds and the Humans that Copy Them

Songbirds are perhaps where an element of human-bird performativity has existed the longest.  Humans have been driven to attempt to replicate and capture their sounds. In the wild, bird fanciers have created elaborate instruments for replicating bird calls, while also trying to transcribe the sounds birds make in order to duplicate them.[vi] The transcriptions, called ‘bird words’, reflect a cultivated communication method that resembles an alien language (language of the bird people) or an attempt at poetry. 

“Woonk-a-chunk

po-ta-to-chip (and dip {in flight})

please; please; please squeeeeze

I am so laz-eeeeee

ra-vi-o-li (flute-like)

ee-oh-lay (flute-like – last note trilly)

ra-vi-o-li (flute-like)

chak; chak; chak”[vii]

The instances of perfecting bird calls, as well as inventing new recording methods such as the stereophonic record[viii] just to re-listen to birdsong, reflect an avian obsession that propelled humans into inventive states to fulfill a desire to better understand and connect with birds. It is not surprising that this obsession was contemporaneous to increased popularity in caging songbirds and training them, resulting also in inventions such as the whistling “bird organ” (or serinette), created to teach canaries to sing.[ix] New inventions and tools to facilitate more interactions in the home demonstrate a shift to a more intimate relationship, where imitation can be seen as a form of flattery.  In fact, humans’ obsessive mimicry of birds is a typical avian behavior. As a result of humans becoming more bird-like, a whole aesthetic genre, ranging from classical music imitating birdsong to “bird words” and the sounds of the “bird organ”, can be attributed to the influence and companion agency of songbirds. The historical trajectory of humans adapting themselves to the sounds of birds is demonstrative of a processual and transformative beauty in human-bird relationships.

Parroted Fragments: Trying to be Human

A humorous, almost alien take on the human experience can be seen when it is imitated by parrots. As is the case with other pet birds, domestication has made parrots highly dependent on humans. They need significant amounts of attention including stimulating toys and playtime. Because of their close relationships with their owners, developed through constant interaction and talking, they are often called ‘companion parrots’. Their desire for playful activities allows humans to use playtime for teaching competitive activities, like has been done with pigeons. For instance, Zac the Macaw achieved the Guinness World Record for most canned drinks opened in a minute with his beak (35) in 2012.[x] This arguably useless skill for a bird likely results from hours of engagement between Zac and his owner. 

Parrot owners are often surprised by the mimetic training of their pets; it is somewhat unpredictable which phrases and sounds a parrot chooses to learn and repeat. In 2017 a pet parrot named Bud was witness to a murder in Michigan and was found to be repeating the final dialogue between the victim (his owner) and the assailant including the words “don’t shoot”.[xi] Bud was the first parrot to be considered a potential witness in court, although at the last minute his testimony was cancelled. Aside from providing evidence in court cases, parrots as companion animals provide the feeling of a human interaction in their ability to ‘speak’ human languages. But they also demonstrate an absurdity in the human experience when selected sounds and phrases are repeated over and over. Parrots perform an interpretative summary of their human relationships according to their own mood and preferences for crafting language. The human world takes on a new perspective when viewed through the audio fragments of a parrot.

“I wanna go to kitchen.

Let’s eat dinner.

Sweet potato. Corn. (eating sounds)

 Raspberry. Let’s go kitchen. Let’s eat!

Let’s go eat some lunch.

Corn.  (eating sounds)

It’s gooood. Carrot. Sweet potatoes. Broccoli. Carrot.” [xii]

The attempted adaptation of parrots to human life is not one-sided as parrot owners often restructure their entire lives around their pets, making adjustments to their house decor and schedules to account for playtime and pleasing environments. Cookbooks such as A Parrot’s Fine Cuisine Cookbook[xiii] offer information on preparing teas, smoothies, and elaborate meals for one’s pet.  The bereavement forum for a popular parrot owner community, which has 35,000 members and nearly 1 million posts, demonstrates how deeply affecting parrots are on humans, as funeral arrangements, last moments, and sentimental memories are discussed tenderly. 

“I don’t think he’s ever had human affection before but I hope I was able to give him that. He liked being sung to and sweet talked. He would always grind his beak contentedly. I sang a lullaby to him and Pewpew every night before I turned the lights off.” [xiv]

Parrots with their ability to ‘speak’, not just sing as with songbirds, have carved out a space in our homes where their roles can be categorized as almost human. They exemplify an openness between both species to live with and care for one another. 

Collaborative Art: Material Evidence of a Human-Avian Social Aesthetic

Birds and humans have been mutually influential on each other over time, becoming increasingly more entangled as birds were brought closer to earth and into the home, in part due to the usage of the cage. If humans approach relationships with their pets by letting them inside (both literally and metaphorically), and if animals have a desire for human companionship, a conscious harmony can be reached comparable to an ideal social aesthetic. Although the intentionality of birds and the feeling of their lifeworlds cannot be fully known, the sway of human-animal relationships in an agentic assemblage can be seen as processually beautiful, where one’s will bends at times to the other’s wishes and desires. In a companion agency relationship birds and humans become a little closer to each other, a little more empathetic in their explorations of each other’s worlds, creatively collaborating on the invention of material culture that shows our willingness to be part of each others’ worlds. The artifacts produced, such as pigeon racing trophies, the bird serinette, or a gourmet cookbook for parrots, serve as physical evidence of a symbiotic, affectionate merging of human-avian lifeworlds.

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Footnotes

[i] Despret, V. From Secret Agents To Interagency. History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History. vol. 52 (2013) no. 4 pp. 29-44

[ii] F. Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.

[iii] A. Berleant, Ideas for a Social Aesthetic, in Andrew Light & Jonathan M. Smith (eds) The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Columbia University Press, 2005, pp. 23-38.

[iv] M. Blume, The Hallowed History of the Carrier Pigeon, The New York Times, 2004, https://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/30/style/the-hallowed-history-of-the-carrier-pigeon.html

[v] A.R.H. Baker, Pigeon Racing Clubs in Pas-de-Calais, France, 1870 -1914, Journal of Historical Geography, 41, 2013, 1-12.

[vi] J. Bevis, A Complete History of Collecting and Imitating Birdsong. 2019. https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/a-complete-history-of-collecting-and-imitating-birdsong/

[vii] A selection of “Mnemonic Bird Songs” compiled by Stanford and South Bay Birders Unlimited https://web.stanford.edu/~kendric/birds/birdsong.html

[viii] Bevis, A Complete History of Collecting and Imitating Birdsong, 2019.

[iv] Bevis, A Complete History of Collecting and Imitating Birdsong, 2019

[x] Most Canned Drinked Opened by a Parrot in One Minute, 2012, https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/106300-most-canned-drinks-opened-by-a-parrot-in-one-minute

[xi] BBC News, Parrot Witness Case: Michigan Woman Guilty of Husband’s Murder, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-40665520

[xii] Hungry Talking Parrot Plans a Dinner Buffet, 2021, https://rumble.com/vp6emb-hungry-talking-parrot-plans-a-dinner-buffet.html

[xiii] Budai, K. A Parrot’s Fine Cuisine Cookbook and Nutritional Guide. Quietlight Productions. 2018.

[xiv] Parrotforums.com, A Tribute to Little Eight, 2018,  https://www.parrotforums.com/threads/a-tribute-to-little-eight.78660/

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