EH Out Loud
The podcast where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human.
The podcast where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human.
Season 1, Episode 3: Eyes in the Sky
For our final episode, we talk with an ornithologist and a drone researcher about birds in the digital age— particularly, how they interact with aerial technologies.
Voice: Experimental Humanities
Krista Caballero: Hi, and welcome back to EH Out Loud! I’m Krista Caballero, the Associate Director here at Bard’s Center for Experimental Humanities, where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human. This season, we’re talking about vultures. In our last episode, you heard interviews with scientist Alexis Brewer and cultural anthropologist Nicole Sault, who despite their different approaches and expertise, had a lot of overlapping points about vultures and the ways in which we perceive them. For our final episode, we’re pivoting to technology. We want to think about how birds interact with technology and also how technology has been animalized, all in an effort to learn how technology can support, thwart, or threaten other species and particularly raptors. We’ll end by thinking about what vultures can teach us about broadening the way we engage with the world as well as how our technologies reveal cultural values. Our first interview is with ornithologist and biology professor Bruce Robertson, who you heard from in episode one. He researches evolutionary traps in birds, which he explains like this:
Bruce Robertson: Just kind of think of something you’re desperately attracted to, but that you can’t– you know it’s bad for you and you can’t– yet you still can’t resist it. Sort of that’s the idea and all kinds of animals and even plants, or even bacteria I think, suffer from the same kind of problem. It might be something like fast food, where it’s– maybe you kind of think it’s delicious, fast, and easy, but where the salt, fat, and sugar kind of attracts your, your tastebuds. And maybe this is something say, over evolutionary time used to be valuable at some point where– so these were important resources. But now, say fast food’s hyperabundant and now kind of makes you less healthy and maybe less reproductive than it should. So it’s sort of like things that at one time were attractive and helpful, and now are attractive and dangerous.
Krista Caballero: Bruce told us how his evolutionary trap research led him to research insects and then bird vision. He talked about how human technologies like solar panels and windmills are now turning bird vision into a liability:
Bruce Robertson: Ecological traps are kind of hard to study, or evolutionary traps, and more broadly are hard to study because a lot of animals are big and they live a long time and so I started studying aquatic insects when I came here. And I did that because aquatic insects get fooled by– I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the surface of a water; like it’s all shimmery and shiny. That’s polarized light, and it’s vibrating in this one direction and all the animals that have ever needed to find water, they seem to be– to recognize that, and they see that cue and they go towards it and they think it’s water. But in the modern world, all kinds of shiny things that we create exist, like buildings and asphalt and solar panels. And so we– they– maybe that birds and insects are attracted to these things because they also get fooled into thinking they’re water when they’re actually sort of man-made objects. And so birds are– insects clearly do this; they lay their eggs on solar panels and cars and all kinds of things. But we’ve started to see birds getting– colliding with things like solar panels and buildings and– And so we think, there’s no evidence for this yet, but it appears that it’s probably what’s happening too– that birds are getting disoriented by polarized light and that especially when they’re migrating through deserts– say in the California desert, they look down at these giant solar panel facilities and they think “Oh wow that’s a really nice desert lake, and I could really use a drink,” and then they fly down there and when they’re landing there, they actually collide with these objects that aren’t supposed to be up and down, are supposed to be kinda’ flat. So I think that’s– I’ve gotten some money to kind of look into that and see if that’s what’s really going on. My best idea is that what we see is a lot of water fowl hitting solar panels, and so maybe what’s happening is that– songbirds too– but maybe what’s happening is that water fowl, you know, they’re not as agile, they can’t turn as quickly, and so maybe what’s happening is that they come in for a nice long landing, and then– maybe they notice that they’re not landing on a lake at some point and then they just can’t turn to avoid it. But maybe songbirds could.
Krista Caballero: Uh-huh. And does– do the solar farms affect raptors in the same way?
Bruce Robertson: That’s a good question, I think that there’s these like reports out from the Fish and Wildlife Service and some private entities that run– like the solar companies. And what they seem to show is that there’s a very low number of raptors hitting the solar panels, and even the other types of solar facilities, ones that use arrays of mirrors to boil– I don’t know if you’ve seen out in California there’s these giant fields of mirrors. And you fly over them and they look kind of spooky; they’re just like giant– yeah– thousands and thousands of mirrors surrounding a tower. And the tower’s glowing hot, white-hot, boiling– it’s basically boiling sodium, and then–
Krista Caballero: Wow
Bruce Robertson: –they create– it creates a kind of– that sodium metal is boiling to create power. But there’s this invisible field called the flux in– that surrounds the towers and that’s very– it’s like a hot– it’s this incredibly hot flux of power. And if birds or insects fly through that they get burned. They just burn in midair. Birds can see ultraviolet light, so that means they can see down into the higher wavelengths than we can see. And that’s the opposite side of heat. Heat is really long, so birds can’t see heat, we can’t see heat; infrared light, but they can see ultraviolet light, and so they can see a broader spectrum than we can see. And that means that can see the beautiful special hidden patterns on flowers, and they can see– they can also see ultraviolet polarized light which should– which might have special properties too. Birds have– they weigh colors differently. For example, like they don’t like blue light for some reason. They don’t like red light. You can put them in a little tunnel and fly them down tunnels towards different kinds of light sources and they can make choices about which way to fly; left or right, depending on what kind of colors and things you present them. And for some reason they tend to hate red lights. No one knows why yet. And you know, birds– different birds see different things so like eagles and raptors they’re like owls. Their eyes are telescopic, so they can’t see anything close up, but they can see– like an eagle can see a dime from the top of the Empire State Building. So telescopic vision and also high resolution vision, and there’s great benefits to that kind of thing. For example, like you can see a prey item from a long ways away, but there’s costs– there’s kind of funny way– they actually causes them to not be able to see things close to them, so like that’s why raptors often get hit by– they run into the windmills.
Krista Caballero: Yes
Bruce Robertson: Yeah ‘cause they can’t see the windmill blade coming, it’s too fast and close–
Krista Caballero: Oh I wondered that, I didn’t realize that was why, that makes sense.
Bruce Robertson: Yeah. When they– someone’s come up with a solution to keep them away from airports, and it’s really funny. They’ve actually like– done all kinds of research looking into all these details of the colors that the birds see, like eagles and hawks and what do they see and what– how can we maybe scare them away, and it turns out the best solution is you just draw these giant pair of googly eyes on, on like a white building and the birds, the hawks get freaked out because they have telescopic vision, [laughter] and they’re looking right at these really scary eyes, and it freaks them out and so they just stay away from the airport all together.
Krista Caballero: And that’s been effective?
Bruce Robertson: It works, yeah.
Krista Caballero:We also Skyped with researcher and founder of Bard’s Center for the Study of the Drone, Arthur Holland Michel. He spoke with us about how drones have become the latest eye in the sky.
Arthur Holland Michel:So when we started the Center, we intentionally called it the Center for the Study of the Drone, and not the Center for the Study of Drones plural. The reason for that is because we felt like the idea of the drone itself had a– an almost mythical power to it. That it was a concept embedded with emotional and intellectual and philosophical currency. When people thought about drones, even if they didn’t know anything about them, or anything about what they could do, there was often a sense of fear or fascination or– or maybe a combination. Which was not driven by the technology itself but as we soon came to realize, rather by the history of human relationships with things in the sky. Because a lot of the things that one can achieve with a drone, say for example, surveillance, can be similarly achieved with objects that do not inspire such fear and reverence, right? People don’t pay all that much attention, for example to, I don’t know, CCTV cameras placed on the tops of tall buildings. If I told you there was a CCTV camera on the top of a building in the city that you lived in you probably wouldn’t be all that bothered by the thought of it. But what if I told you that there was a– a persistent drone flying at high altitude in the sky, maybe you could see it, maybe you couldn’t. That is likely to inspire a much more visceral, emotional reaction, even though the effects are essentially the same. There is another element to all this, in that the drone is– has no humans on board it. It is unpiloted, uninhabited. And even though we know that the technology is remotely controlled and that there is a human in most cases actually piloting the aircraft, it is impossible to not project onto the drone some impression of autonomy, or artificial intelligence. And in that sense it is like a creature that we have no control over, a creature that is at once mysterious and knowable, and at the same time visible and invisible. Attributes that are also very present for birds I would argue.
Krista Caballero: We then asked Arthur about bio-inspired drones that are created to mimic flying patterns of birds, bats and insects. And because they are tiny with excellent maneuverability, people imagine these drones might eventually be deployed in large numbers to imitate swarm behavior.
Arthur Holland Michel: So there is a tremendous amount of research into bio-inspired drones. On one level, that research is motivated by a desire to replicate the incredible things that birds are able to do. For example, the ability to perch, which sounds very simple, but is actually quite complex for an autonomous aircraft. You give it a– a powerline say, or a narrow branch, and the aircraft needs to know that landing spot’s position in space, it needs to measure how much weight it can tolerate, and how stable it is, and respond accordingly. So getting drones to be able to just perch on a powerline is no mean feat. That being said, another part of what motivates this research but actually even more motivates our collective interest in this research is that the idea of replicating nature of really blurring that line between the drone and the bird has this– it’s a fascinating concept, it’s an enticing concept. You know, drones are put out on the market every week. And often they don’t get much attention at all. But if a manufacturer makes their drone look a little bit like a bird, as one Russian manufacturer just did, with a drone that looks quite a lot like an owl, it makes global headlines.
Krista Caballero:And over the course of our conversation we inevitably, we got talking about Hitchcock:
Arthur Holland Michel: Or is it because the swarm speaks to a very deep fear that we have? One of the earliest pieces that I wrote about drones was looking at the Hitchcock movie, The Birds, which is of course based on the short story The Birds. And looking at that profound fear that– that the notion of a flock of birds that we have no control over can inspire, and considering that in the context of ongoing developments with drone technology– And the thesis that I come to is that there is something that is deeply culturally embedded about that fear of the swarm. But that too gives the swarm a military utility ‘cause sometimes what you want to do is terrify your adversary. And that alone will achieve a desired set of sort of responses namely, running away, that are not driven by the actual capabilities of your technology, but of the impression that it leaves. That’s why a lot of militaries want to give us the impression that they have drones. And some have even gone so far as to try to give us the impression that they have drone swarms, even though in reality they may not actually have just that capability. It might just be that be a case of some fancy smoke and mirrors.
Krista Caballero:We then discussed recent initiatives to train raptors to take down drones:
Arthur Holland Michel:That raises another intersection between the drone and birds. Which is that sometimes they literally intersect. There are videos all over the internet of birds of prey taking down drones because they think–
Krista Caballero: And be trained to do so–
Arthur Holland Michel:Well and being trained to do so. So there are two things. There’s– there are videos of hawks and eagles bringing down drones in the wild, because they either see them as a threat or as prey, or there are as you mentioned, efforts to train raptors as an anti-drone device, the idea being that if a drone with explosives on it is flying towards a crowded stadium as part of a terrorist attack, you send out the eagle, and the eagle grabs it and flies it to safety. You obviously may have to sacrifice the eagle for the sake of everyone else’s safety, but you know that is, well that is a sacrifice that many law enforcements might be willing to take. That again was a case of the cultural potency of both birds and drones coming together. Because when that company first announced its intention to take down drones with birds and released concurrently a video of an eagle snatching a drone out of the sky, everyone went nuts. That was in every major news publication in the world. I spend a lot of time doing research on counter-drone technology and there are many ways to shoot down drones, but the one I most often get asked about is the eagles. Well, as it turns out, eagles probably are not the best counter-drone technology because they are very expensive [laughter] to maintain, you have to have an eagle on hand at all times on the off chance that someone is going to attack you with a drone, and perhaps most crucially, eagles will only reliably take down drones that they have been specifically taught to take down. And so, if a drone that looks completely different comes at you, your eagle may not know what to do about it. So because of those limitations, in spite of the intense interest, it’s an approach to countering drones that if you’ll excuse the pun has not quite taken off.
Krista Caballero: You can go to our show notes to learn more about Arthur’s book, EYES IN THE SKY, which focuses on the rise of advanced aerial surveillance technology.
After talking with Bruce and Arthur about the more complicated, antagonistic relationships between birds and technology, Alexis Brewer, the vulture researcher we talked with in our last episode, had a hopeful story about how the camera eye helps her collect vast amounts of data:
Alexis Brewer: Yeah, so we use– we call them camera traps, some people call them trail cams, especially if you’re a hunter, but they’re just motion sensitive cameras which is a great– a great technology that has been around, and they’re continually improving them of course, like anything else, but what it really allows us to do is get a lot of data with much less effort than we would be able to if we weren’t using the cameras. So essentially the cameras are taking the place of me or any of my interns sitting in a blind for days and hours and weeks on end, collecting data. And we’re reducing our impact on the environment which is great. So we just go out, put up a camera; we set up our experiment and the camera does all the work, and we don’t have to come back except for when we’re monitoring the carcass so that way we can look for other changes. But that means that we’re disturbing the animals less, we’re disturbing the environment less, we’re work– frankly, we’re working less, though we– and so what we end up doing is we add on more sites so we can cover more ground, and be more efficient with our time. So it’s a great technology, that’s actually really easy to use. So I train– I feel like– I counted at one point, though I’m probably a little bit behind, but at some point we had trained over twenty six different people on this project to use the cameras; they’re pretty easy to use, frankly, they’re pretty user friendly, so it’s also very accessible. My dad uses them for fun in his backyard [laughs] in Little Rock, Arkansas. And so you know, they are just very accessible and easy– and you get a ton of data off them. So you can find different species, you find species that are more shy, nocturnal species that you might miss, really small species that once again might be hard if you’re just sitting in a blind, especially because people get tired in a way that technology does not. So you know, you can imagine if you’re sitting in a blind at 2a.m., you really want to take a nap, and so you’re going to miss that little rodent that’s running and checking out your carcass.
Krista Caballero: We return now to our conversation with Nicole Sault, who closes this episode by talking about the environmental destruction that mining and the planned obsolescence of technology have created.
Nicole Sault:So the question addresses our own personal use of cell phones and computers and cars and genetically engineered organisms and pesticides. But it also addresses warfare. And one of the things I’m so concerned about is that when people talk about the climate crisis and environmental justice, so often they don’t talk about warfare as a key promoter in this destruction beginning with the mining of minerals, the wars over oil, the manufacture of the weapons that are used against people in other nations. So if we’re going to address the climate crisis, we need to be looking at the tank in the middle of the room.
Krista Caballero: In the past three episodes, we’ve explored vultures in our Bard community and beyond. We’ve thought about the ways that vultures interact with our technologies, mythologies, and ecologies, and what we can learn from these underappreciated avian neighbors. Thanks for being part of our flock here at the Center for Experimental Humanities, and look out for our next series in the spring. We end with some final comments from our guests on ways of knowing birds and ways of experiencing our environment:
Susan Fox Rogers: I think it’s sort of like knowing the names of my students right? It’s about acknowledging an other by having a name for it, and really paying attention. And for some of these birds, in order to name them, you really have to pay attention, like the sparrows for instance. So I think that’s– it’s a kind of– it’s a paying attention that is part of the naming and I think in paying attention you start to care about something, and when you care about something, you love it, and if you love it, you take care of it. So, I’ve got a lot of feeders on my property.
Bruce Robertson: Well, you know, there’s a report that came out just in the journal Science a few months ago that showed that bird– thirty percent of the birds– what’s it– thirty percent of the birds that were here in 1966 are now gone. And that’s, you know, this is part of this– every generation experiences this fewer– sees nature reduced a little bit more, a little bit more, and the worst part about it is that we, we grew up with that, so we don’t know that it can be any different, it’s called shifting baseline syndrome right? So we kind of get used to what we see and– and you’ll remember, 1966 was very late in history, it just happened to be the first year when the nationwide bird monitoring called the Breeding Bird Survey started and so that’s how long we’ve been collecting data but– And a lot of bird species are down– have either gone extinct or are 99 percent reduced from 1966, so yeah, birds are declining all over the place, and you can see that.
Nicole Sault: They’re friends. I saw a turkey vulture yesterday, [it] flew over and I said, “Hello friend.” They’re my friends, they’re my teachers, protectors, I mean, I’ve learned from being with peoples in you know Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, Bolivia, that– that these birds have always had a connection with people. And birds were important to my grandparents and to many of my friends and so, if a day goes by without seeing birds, then I feel bereft.
Krista Caballero: EH Out Loud is produced at Bard’s Center for Experimental Humanities by me, Krista Caballero, Corinna Cape, Bird Cohen, and Ariel West. Fact checking and transcription by Anna Hallett Gutierrez and Cymone Richardson. Sound editing and music by Ariel West and Bird Cohen. Special thanks to Alexis Brewer, Maria Sachiko Cecire, Djimon Gibson, Erik Kiviat, Laurie Husted, Arthur Holland Michel, Bruce Robertson, Susan Fox Rogers, Nicole Sault, and the Experimental Humanities Media Corps. Visit us at eh.bard.edu to learn about our vulture research as well as other projects at the Center.