One of those ubiquitous David Attenborough nature documentaries, called The Life of Birds, was playing in the background the other day. We weren't paying attention much until Attenborough focused his hushed voice on the Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae). The name comes from its lyre-shaped plumage but surely it also refers to the male lyrebird's extraordinary ability to mimic almost any sound.
In the video embedded below, you can hear the bird mashups its own songs with that of other birds, such as the kookabura, and with man-made sounds — a camera shutter, another camera with a motor drive, a car alarm and chainsaws — all with amazing fidelity.
In other YouTube videos, you see the birds not on the floor of a real forest but enclosed in imitation surroundings at the zoo. You can also hear an expanded selection in their repertoire, which includes a jack hammer, a truck and a two-way radio. Dipping into the uncanny valley, that radio unnervingly comes with a replay of an analogue human voice.
Though these copied sounds came from a building site inside the zoo, it is nevertheless interesting to imagine that a similar soundtrack might have been playing in their home forests before being rescued and brought to their present cages. What visitors are listening to, then, are the narratives of their displacement, from their own voices. Their birdsongs are a kind a strange audio tour through environmental degradation and ecological extinction, something more direct and visceral than an exhibit label that most only glance at.
We are reminded here of Abraham, a pet of David Gissen's neighbors. Abraham is an African Grey Parrot, and it “squawks and squeeks” the sounds of their neighborhood: alarms on microwave ovens, screeching brakes of busses, the clanging of dishes, pots and pots. “In short, Abraham is a type of architectural and urban, living archive.”
Gissen later learns that African Grey Parrots “engage in a migratory pattern in Africa that extends from Liberia into the Sudan. In other words, Abraham’s species-kin move through some of the most troubling areas of the African continent in the very expression of their lives.”
From this, Gissen proposes what must be one of our absolute favorite speculative projects, the Socio-natural Archive.
[I]magine the naturalist, the geographer and the urban historian collectively capturing some of these birds, with the violence they have recorded, and bringing them into our urban zoos. One might imagine recoding the zoo, an archive that appears as a space of entertainment, as the representation of trans-continental war and conflict that it really is — those animals come from somewhere (usually an “elsewhere”). If we can imagine bringing Abraham’s brothers and sisters into a space where we might reflect on their song of urban and social destruction, we will hear things that will shock us, frighten us and make us consider the particular power and moving nature of archives that are part of life itself. When we consider the way non-human life is used as an archive, we realize that the social, the natural and the historical cannot be so easily divided.
It's hard to resist imagining future historians getting frustrated that the only first-hand accounts of our present wars are irretrievable from ancient data storage devices. So they turn amateur ornithologists, netting birds whose ancestors might have eavesdropped on the long ago conflict and then passed on their precious recordings to their offsprings, who then passed it on to the next generation, and so on. The signal after centuries of analogue downloading and uploading might be garbled, but perhaps there's enough there to reconstruct something, anything, a song being broadcast from deep time.