It's time for bird-centered design

Migratory warblers have been passing through the woods where I live in Baltimore, and I’ve gotten caught up in the excitement of finding and identifying the many species coming through over the last couple of weeks. It turns out that many migratory birds travel not only thousands, but even tens of thousands of miles over the course of a single year.

Think of all the bad design – border walls and all – anchored in the idea that being fixed in a place of your own is the most natural and normal thing. What would happen if we really let ourselves ease into a space for more radical imagination of migration and belonging, the possibility of being and belonging along such a vast range of home and habitat?

Especially given that our designs are so deadly for such creatures. Each year, for example, literally billions of birds are killed by collisions with the glass facades and other architecture of our modern lives.

As we begin to hear more and more about life-centered design, drawing on biomimicry and inspired by endeavors like AskNature.org, I am wondering what something like bird-centered design could mean. The question is inspired in part by this excellent reflection on bee-centered design. But also by the question of how it might matter that we endeavor to rethink design with one life form, as opposed to another.

Lately I’ve been reading A World on the Wing by Scott Weidensaul, and here’s one pretty mind-blowing paragraph.

“Migratory birds can grow and jettison their internal organs on an as-needed basis, bolster their flight performance by juicing on naturally occurring performance-enhancing drugs, and enjoy perfect health despite seasonally exhibiting all the signs of morbid obesity, diabetes, and looming heart disease. A migrating bird can put alternating halves of its brain to sleep while flying for days, weeks, or even months on end, and when forced to remain fully awake has evolved defenses against the effects of sleep deprivation; in fact, birds actually seem to get sharper under such conditions, the envy of any human slogging through the day after a poor night’s sleep. If all that isn’t sci-fi enough, we now know that they navigate using a form of quantum mechanics that made even Einstein queasy.”

Ecological design is an invitation to think against the presumption of human mastery, human ingenuity, the idea that the greatest plasticity of form and possibility is born of our unique genius. But it strikes me that there’s a lot at stake in what creatures – and resulting life circumstances – we might begin to think with instead. How amazing is that avian plasticity? What could it mean to fold such radical plasticity and adaptability into our sense of what is possible in our all-too-human (but never only human) worlds?

Tim Beatley recently suggested that “Every design and building project in the city should be seen as the chance to make room for other species of life, especially birds. Habitats that will be good for birds will be good for humans as well.”

As we take on this challenge, we can acknowledge that signs of avian ingenuity are all around. For the last several years, for example, a pair of mourning doves has returned to our small Baltimore city backyard year after year to nest and raise new broods on top of the electrical box for our rooftop solar panels. We get some serious stink-eye from those doves every time we dare set foot out the back door nearby, as if the space, indeed, is theirs. Two more little doves fledged and left the nest just yesterday. Their parents will be back again, no doubt.

I don’t know yet where one might go with an idea like bird-centered design. But it’s something I keep thinking about as I also crane my neck and head up into the canopies of the high trees near my house, hearing the sound of warblers and other avian migrants, wondering what these spaces look and feel like to them, wondering what it could mean to see these places and their possible futures anew through their experience.

I love how thought-provoking this post is, and I’ve been meaning to get Weidensaul’s book ever since I heard him on this episode of the podcast BirdNote.

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Thank you @aklein! The book is really vivid, almost biographical, when it comes to the life ways of different bird species.

I’ve come across the Lights Off Baltimore campaign to reduce light pollution for migrating birds. I also came across at some some point some town that had set up regulations for bird safe architecture; it’s not SF but I guess they have it too: https://sfdbi.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Boards_and_Commissions/Green_Building_Subcommitee/Standards_for_Bird_Safe_Buildings_DRAFT_OCT2010.pdf

And then there’s this cool animal wall https://www.dezeen.com/2009/08/28/animal-wall-by-gitta-gschwendtner/#

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Finally, what reverie about avian architecture would be complete wihtout Bachelard:

"a bird’s tool is its own body, that is, its breast, with which it presses and tightens its materials until they have become absolutely pliant, well-blended and adapted to the general plan.” Michelet suggests a house built by and for the body, taking form from the inside, like a shell, in an intimacy that works physically. The form of the nest is commanded by the inside. “On the inside,” he continues, “the instrument that prescribes a circular form for the nest is nothing else but the body of the bird. It is by constantly turning round and round and pressing back the walls on every side, that it succeeds in forming this circle.” The female, like a living tower, hollows out the house, while the male brings back from the outside all kinds of materials, sturdy twigs and other bits. By exercising an active pressure, the female makes this into a felt-like padding.

Michelet goes on: “The house is a bird’s very person; it is its form and its most immediate effort, I shall even say, its suffering. The result is only obtained by constantly repeated pressure of the breast. There is not one of these blades of grass that, in order to make it curve and hold the curve, has not been pressed on countless times by the bird’s breast, its heart, surely with difficulty in breathing, per­haps even, with palpitations.”

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Fascinating, not least because of the great range of dwellings in the form of nests that birds build. Compare the two nests in the photo from our backyard above, the great mess of the dove’s nest to which they keep returning, vs. the precision of the one beside it, robins from some years ago, I believe, which is so much more careful and yet was never reoccupied after being abandoned, nor do the doves ever go to the visually “better” nest right beside theirs.

I was on a bird walk this morning and an Audubon guide explained that “ovenbirds” get their name from the hearth-like structures they build with leaves on the forest floor. We saw Baltimore orioles up above, which build enclosed cocoons that are quite artful and encompassing. On rainy days like today I also find myself wondering why birds are so much less bothered than we are, which has much to do with their feathers which repel water and which imply therefore the possibility of the body itself as a kind of shelter that works differently for different beings.