Chris Gehman

Watching The Birds


iluvdodge9, “Raven Asks For Help With PQPine Quills” (2013)

I don’t go to the web in search of moving images as art. The medium and the context simply don’t support that kind of experience — not for me, at any rate. For that I’ll keep going out and watching movies projected big and bright, in a public place with other people. What we get from videos on the web is pure representation. Pictures of things we want to see. Things like birds.

Birds occupy a special position in human culture, and not only because we envy their ability to fly. It’s also that they are far from us: We don’t see them as close relatives, like mammals, but as distinct. They’re scratchy and pointed, twitchy and unpredictable, seldom cute, and seem generally indifferent to us except when we appear threatening. Yet they are uncannily familiar in many ways, and in their astounding diversity and ubiquity we recognize a kind of success that is comparable to our own: A success attained through speciation and diversification by evolutionary means.

Of countless sources quoted by Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 book, “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” one that has lodged in my mind for more than twenty years is this: “So also the observation of Captain Stansbury on his journey to Utah… he saw a blind pelican which was fed, and well fed, by other pelicans upon fishes which had to be brought from a distance of thirty miles.”

This is how birds astonish us. By feats of incredible endurance, such as the annual journeys of migratory species; by extravagance of appearance (the peacock, the birds of paradise); by species-specific forms of inventiveness (the bower bird, the tailor bird); and by demonstrations of social solidarity and intelligence. And this must be why we love to observe them: Bird-watchers are legion, while ant-watching, lizard-watching or snail-watching are activities carried out mainly by professionals.

Mary Midgley, in Beast and Man, makes a claim for a special kinship between birds and people in this respect: “In their strong visual interest, human beings are much nearer to birds than to most animals” (253).


Mr. Kraus Garden Studio, “Bird Experiment”, (2008)

I’ve always liked crows best. Their surprising size, deep blackness and tactful sociability have always appealed to me. Wherever you see one crow you’ll probably find another, but it may take a careful survey of the area to spot that second bird (and sometimes more). They don’t crowd one another, but are close at hand if needed. Crows are quiet except when they have a good reason to be loud. And they’re extremely intelligent.

Japanese crows, who have integrated more completely into huge cities like Tokyo than have North American or European crows, are especially fascinating. I’ve loved watching them when I’ve visited Japan, but they have longstanding cultural associations as birds of ill omen. Their very success has made them targets: Recently, as urban crow populations have exploded, they’ve become “enemies” of an advanced technological society because they cause frequent power failures. There are now crow death squads operating, particularly on the southern island of Kyushu.


David Attenborough, BBC

Several video clips available on the web document this intelligence. Some, like the Attenborough clip, are observational (i.e., they document behaviour in situations not determined by those documenting the behaviour). But in other cases crows have been placed into experimental conditions created specifically for the purposes of observation.


Betty, the New Caledonian Crow

Against the simple-minded Enlightenment view of animals as creatures of “blind instinct,” without any reasoning or reflective capacity, is the recognition that intelligence, sociability, emotion and consciousness are qualities present to a greater or lesser degree in virtually all animal species. The idea that humanity works in close proximity to our animal relatives is far from new. At least as early as 1691 we can find a text like this one, by John Ray, protesting against the reductive view of animal capacities:

“That the Soul of Brutes is material, and the whole Animal, Soul and Body, but a meer Machine, is the Opinion publickly own’d and declar’d of Des Cartes, Gassendus, Dr. Willis and others… This opinion, I say, I can hardly digest. I should rather think Animals to be endu’d wit a lower Degree of Reason, than that they are meer Machines. I could instance in many Actions of Brutes that are hardly to be accounted for without Reason and Argumentation; as that commonly noted of Dogs, that running before their Masters will stop at a divarication of the way, ’till they see which Hand their Masters will take… ; and that when they have gotten a Prey, which they fear their Masters will take from them, they will run away and hide it, and afterwards return to it” (Cited in Humphrey Jennings’ “Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers”). 

The curious contradiction is that, in Ray’s time at least, those who expounded the virtues of science seem frequently to have been the lesser observers of real behaviour, apparently blinded by a priori commitments to certain philosophical positions.

Nearly three centuries later, Mary Midgley, again in “Beast and Man,” still found it necessary to elaborate a similar point: “People determined to ‘explain animal behaviour’ on some simple scheme will always be able to find their own way of accounting for any isolated performance, however impressive, as mechanical, imitative, coincidental, or whatever. But this is vacuous, since ‘explaining behaviour’ must refer to structural principles, therefore to long stretches of it and many partial parallels. It is relating it to a context” (215).

The value of these videos is as hard evidence of the intelligence and special abilities of certain animals. But it’s a double-bladed kind of evidence. On the one hand, the recognition of a planning, instrumental intelligence in Betty, the New Caledonian crow, who clearly and deliberately makes herself a tool out of an unfamiliar material, is not just amazing to see (and slightly hilarious), it also gives us a strong sense that we are witness to the existence of a kindred consciousness. But beyond this there is a second, odder recognition: that we alone among the animals would create such an experiment, document it, and circulate the images around the world.

IowaNow, “Pigeons Peck For Computerized Treat” (2013)

Yes, animals other than human beings have feelings, are conscious, can plan and think. Animals other than human beings can respond and adapt to the changes in the natural environment, and to the artificial environments created by us. What animal other than human creates controlled experiments? What other animal devotes so much time to watching other animals, just to find out what they do?

If we exist to some extent as a unique species, as we surely do, it must be as a result of a mysterious will to power, on the one hand, and an insatiable curiosity on the other, both facilitated by a particularly developed cultural and linguistic faculty.


David Attenborough, “Bird Sounds From the Lyre Bird”, BBC

The lyre bird is evidence of the need for our feathered friends to be ready to adapt to the encroachment of human beings if they are to survive. It’s no surprise that pigeons, more used to humans than any other bird, are paranoid about approaching tasty trash that seems too obviously ordered and organized. Or that they would make use of a subway.


FunDumps, “Pigeon Rides Subway” (2013)

- Chris Gehman

Ryeberg Curator Bio

RSS Feed
Chris Gehman is an independent filmmaker, media arts programmer and critic. His short films have screened at Canadian and international festivals and cinematheques; they include the award-winning “Refraction Series” (2008), "Contrafacta" (2000, co-directed with Roberto Ariganello) and "First Dispatch from Atlantis" (1993). Chris has programmed screenings for organizations such as the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Image Forum (Tokyo), the Gene Siskel Film Center (Chicago) and Pleasure Dome, and worked as a programmer and editor at Cinematheque Ontario from 1997 to 2000. From 2000 to 2004 he was the Artistic Director of the Images Festival, and in 2006 he co-programmed the Wavelengths section of the Toronto International Film Festival. His critical writings have appeared in periodicals such as Millenium Film Journal, Cinema Scope, Broken Pencil and Prefix Photo, and he recently co-edited an anthology of writings on artists' animation ("The Sharpest Point: Animation at the End of Cinema," YYZ Books, 2005).