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Listen to the Birds

About: Frédéric Keck, Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts, Duke University Press; Natalie Porter, Viral Economies: Bird Flu Experiments in Vietnam, University of Chicago Press

by Priscilla Wald , 7 September 2020
with the support of Public Books

Once seen as omens, birds continue to point to the future: a few years ago, their change of behavior heralded the beginning of avian flu. Two anthropological studies focus on these avian sentinels. A closer observation of the relationships between species, they argue, would help us better prepare for the pandemics to come.

Public Books and Books & Ideas team up to offer a collaborative series on Covid-19. This article is published as part of this partnership.

Bird omens once warned the ancients of the future. In Greece and Rome, for example, avian augury involved seers trained in the art of reading the flight of birds, who sought to make sense of a chaotic world through decoding messages from the gods. Since bird omens—or “auspices,” Latin for this kind of divination—often warned of disaster, ignoring or misreading them could be catastrophic. [1] Ancient audiences watched tragedy unfold when hubristic rulers disregarded their augurs’ reading of these omens. (The two eagles that violently destroy a pregnant hare at the beginning of Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon, for example, forecast a Greek victory but prompt Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, leading, in turn, to his murder at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra.) The legacy of bird divination is etymologically evident in such words as augury, inauguration, and auspicious (from the Latin augur and auspex). Birds, it seems, continue to point to the future. [2]

Bird omens of a sort are the subject of two recent anthropological studies of avian flu preparedness in Asia. Both Natalie Porter, in Viral Economies, and Frédéric Keck, in Avian Reservoirs, convey the ominousness suffusing poultry farming, using birds as predictors. As both demonstrate, studying how birds interact with human agriculture can provide early warnings of a grim future. Indeed, Keck in Avian Reservoirs explicitly compares public health surveillance (which he studies in the book) to augury, tracing “the idea that birds carry signs of the future that humans should learn to read … back to Roman divination.”

From bird omens to global pandemics

The focus of both books might specifically be avian bird flu, but its implications reach far beyond. An unusual die-off of poultry or wild birds in an area, for example, can signal disaster on multiple levels: economic, social, and medical. The portent of pandemic that concerns both authors, however, is less the avian sentinels than the social disorder evident in the measures designed to predict and prepare for it. Through fieldwork, both authors observed and participated in exercises in avian flu preparedness: Keck while working with microbiologists on a European Commission-funded project designed to investigate the conditions enabling pathogens to cross species barriers; Porter while living and working on a Vietnamese poultry farm. They were both troubled as they observed the social, economic, and political relationships emerging in what Porter calls “a new era in global health,” initiated when a novel strain of the virulent H5N1 avian influenza infected human beings in December 2003, a half year after the containment of SARS.

While the mortality rate of avian flu among birds—or fowl plague—has long threatened poultry farmers with financial disaster, the new era emerged when it was recognized that the disease could transmit to humans, raising the possibility of a bird flu pandemic. This recognition turned birds into something new: not just harbingers of the end times but potential agents of apocalypse. For both Porter and Keck, however, the agents posing the greatest threat to human health are not avian but human. A microbe might cause an infection in one or more individuals, but humans create the conditions that transform infections into outbreaks and outbreaks into pandemics. Environmental devastation, an increasingly shrinking and interconnected world, and a growing population all produce the ideal medium for rapid microbial circulation.

“Daybreak reaches your ears before your eyes on poultry farms in northern Vietnam,” begins Viral Economies; the morning cries of chickens, Porter explains, unfold sonically into a cacophonous “call to action, an auditory assault that rouses you from bed and signals the start of a new day.” But in 2003, an “entirely different alarm sounded from Vietnamese poultry farms.” SARS “announced the dawn, not of a new day, but of [the] new era.” The threat had turned the birds’ pastoral cacophony into a dire warning of global pandemic. Porter’s opening scene recalls the beginning of Silent Spring, where Rachel Carson uses a change in bird song to forecast doom. “On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.” [3] Neither “witchcraft” nor “enemy action” has caused this devastation in Carson’s opening fable; rather, “the people had done it themselves.” [4] Birds bear the warnings, Carson or Porter might note, but humans are responsible for the global threat.

This dawn anecdote aptly launches Porter’s analysis of 21st-century “global public health.” Such an analysis could not be more timely, since COVID-19—like avian bird flu—is a uniquely dangerous zoonotic disease, which means it can transmit from animals to humans. The danger to the population from such diseases is largely the result of humans’ lack of immunity. Efforts to address the apparent acceleration of zoonoses in the early years of the 21st century found expression in the One Health Initiative, designed to foster collaborations among a wide variety of experts in human and animal health. But Porter, noting the inefficacy of the initiative, attributes its failure to “interventions [that] are overly technoscientific and targeted” and a form of governance that does not “properly account for the conditions under which farmers and fowl actually live.”

A multispecies ethnography

Seeking to correct the limitations of One Health, Porter offers a different lens for her analysis: a multispecies ethnography. This, she explains, is “a mode of investigation that focuses attention on culturally and historically specific relationships between species, and explores how those relationships shape social worlds.” In practice, this means that Viral Economies broadens One Health’s focus on humans and animals to include, surprisingly, pathogens. According to Porter, viruses—as “fundamentally relational entities”—reveal the many ways individuals and species come into contact, as well as the fluidity of roles and relationships. Poultry, for example, connect to people as living organisms, livestock, and disease reservoirs. Consequently, explains Porter, a

“multispecies analysis takes poultry and pathogens as part of the social fabric, and it traces the everyday exchanges in which these life forms become productive forces for markets while simultaneously engaging in a variety of consequential relations with humans.”

By treating the virus as a vector for study rather than a villain to denigrate, Porter’s analysis opens up new ways of seeing how different organisms circulate together, for good and for ill.

The relationships that come into focus in a multispecies ethnography for both Keck and Porter reveal the cultural assumptions and beliefs that inform social organization. The eponymous “avian reservoir” (the bird “hosting” the disease), explains Keck, is “a space where human and nonhuman animals are connected by invisible entities called ‘microbes’ that can be captured, classified, and mapped.”

Classifying, capturing, and mapping microbes all involve technologies—instruments, language, images—that collectively register the double helix of biology and culture, which constitutes lived experience. Similarly, as Keck notes, “contact zones” can be spaces—such as museums, as in James Clifford’s formulation [5]—in which people and cultures productively commingle or, as in the language of biosecurity, spaces of dangerous contagion. But the productive and dangerous commingling converge in the multiple uses of the word contagion: in the circulation of ideas and unconscious influence, for example, as well as germs.

The concept of “contagion” materializes the experience of being human: we are constantly exposed to others’ beliefs and affects, as well as to the microbes they carry. If the natural disruption marked by bird die-offs signals social chaos—like the bird omens in classical literature—then efforts to address the cause of the die-offs expose the logic governing the social order, as well as the techniques needed to maintain that order.

Rituals in global public health

Both works identify a ritualistic aspect in global public health measures. They do so by demonstrating how the multiple perspectives offered in a multispecies analysis make visible the social hierarchies and differential valuing of life forms undergirding such rituals.

Keck distinguishes between prevention and preparedness, observing, “If prevention excludes the perspectives of animals on public health management under a sacrificial rationality underlying culling and vaccinating, preparedness includes them by extending participation through techniques of monitoring.” Preparedness rituals in turn manifest the ways living organisms are transformed through their varied relationships, “biological, cultural, and economic”; birds become sentinels, fowl become poultry, and poultry in turn become “livestock, … living beings as well as market labor and commodities.”
These metamorphoses make apparent how, as Porter emphasizes, “life itself is … at stake in global health experiments.” They show the calculations involved in what, following Michelle Murphy, she calls the economization of life: which lives are “worth living and sustaining, which lives [are] worthy of investment, and which lives [are] not worth being born.” [6] And they bring into view the underlying concepts that structure all of the relationships, the “tools,” as Keck calls them, that “capture relations between humans and their environment.”

Finding new metaphors

Both works advocate a radical change in the relationships between human and nonhuman animals. But the most urgent need for change may well be in our conceptual relationship to microbes, which is evident in our vocabulary.
Anyone following the COVID-19 coverage has surely heard that we are “at war” with SARS-CoV-2; indeed, microbial warfare is a long-standing epidemiological metaphor. A possible explanation for its appeal is evident in the epigraph to the 1995 film Outbreak, where the molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg calls the virus “the single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet.” After all, he muses elsewhere, “many people find it difficult to accommodate to the reality that Nature is far from benign; at least it has no special sentiment for the welfare of the human versus other species.” [7]

Metaphors, like host reservoirs and contact spaces, transform as they recombine elements. And the metaphor of war turns the indifference of the natural world embodied in the elusive and mysterious virus—which it is difficult to know how to accommodate—into a willful enemy engaged in an activity for which humankind has centuries of precedent, including a well-developed vocabulary of heroism and sacrifice. We can see in this metaphor the possibility of a roadmap for addressing the threat and an effort to preserve human dignity. It is, after all, humbling for humans to imagine annihilation by a life form that isn’t even sentient—or, for that matter, unambiguously alive.

But the war metaphor is misleading and even dangerous. As Keck notes, Lederberg was among a growing group of biologists troubled by it. “Perhaps one of the most important changes we can make,” Lederberg advised in a 2000 Science article, “is to supercede the 20th-century metaphor of war for describing the relationship between people and infectious agents.” [8]

In its place he proposed an ecological perspective offered by “the germs’-eye view of infection.” [9] Following the emergence of a series of catastrophic communicable diseases—HIV, Ebola, Marburg, and other deadly hemorrhagic fevers—in the 1970s and 1980s, Lederberg helped organize a conference to study the phenomenon of “disease emergence.” The participants concluded it was the result of globalization and development practices. While an expanding population was moving into previously uninhabited (or sparsely inhabited) places—and hence encountering new microbes—people and goods were moving rapidly around an increasingly interconnected world.

From a “germs’-eye” view, the participants concluded, it was human behavior that created these new outbreaks and turned them into pandemics. Not, critically, microbial ingenuity. Consequently, the threat of emerging diseases could not be addressed exclusively by medical science and epidemiology. Instead, it required a radical transformation of both large-scale and everyday practices. The war metaphor obscured the human responsibility for the problem.

Pandemics and social diseases

While the message of the conference concerned the importance of learning to live more responsibly with our microbes to avoid catastrophic pandemics—a lesson the 21st century attests to our not having learned—for Porter and Keck the lesson is that global health initiatives are themselves diagnostic. The natural disruption of a pandemic, like a classical bird omen, reveals social disease on a planetary scale. SARS-CoV-2 is speaking to us in, for example, the higher infection and mortality rates in Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities, which are among the many inequities it highlights. But, as Porter and Keck show, disparities manifest in preparedness as well as in pandemics.

A multispecies analysis, Porter writes, shows that “at every level and in every relation, some lives matter more than others.” And she advocates “opening One Health up to new experimental designs, which can better reflect multiple ways of classifying, controlling, and valuing life, and can better accommodate multiple ways of living with others in a pandemic age.” For Keck, that accommodation relies on humans’ coming to understand that we are not “at the center of the ecosystem” but “are only one of its actors”; it is time to acknowledge our “dependence on other species.”

The message of these two works is both timely and time-honored. The birds and their microbes, like the omens of classical literature, bear witness to a realm of higher truths. We would do well to heed our augurs.

Dossier(s) :
Faces of the Pandemic

by Priscilla Wald, 7 September 2020

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Priscilla Wald, « Listen to the Birds », Books and Ideas , 7 September 2020. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1On classical bird omens, see Jeremy Mynott, Birds in the Ancient World, Oxford University Press, 2018.

[2Today, it is also evident in the visual imagery of outbreak films: “We don’t have to weaponize the bird flu,” intones the CDC’s Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) in the 2011 film Contagion (dir. Stephen Soderbergh), “the birds are doing it for us.” And in the 2006 ABC film Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America, flying geese metamorphose into missiles. In such instances, the flight of birds again ominously hints at where there is (or soon will be) an outbreak. As in Greek tragedy, today audiences’ bird’s-eye view portends imminent disaster.

[3Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, 1962, p. 2.

[4Carson, Silent Spring, p. 3

[5Keck, Avian Reservoirs, p. 63, citing James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, Harvard University Press, 1988.

[6Porter, Viral Economies, p. 6, citing Michelle Murphy, The Economization of Life, Duke University Press, 2017.

[7Joshua Lederberg, “Viruses and Humankind: Intracellular Symbiosis and Evolutionary Competition,” in Emerging Viruses, edited by Stephen S. Morse Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 3–4.

[8Joshua Lederberg, “Infectious History,” Science, vol. 288, no. 5464, 2000, p. 293.

[9Lederberg, “Infectious History,” p. 293.

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