Shepard Krech III is an ethnoornithological colleague of mine with whom I share a fascination with the interaction between culture and birds. The following essay is based upon a presentation to a symposium held at a meeting of the Society of Ethnobiology in 2007 and has been published at the “On The Human” webpage, a project of the National Humanities Center. Shepard has kindly allowed me to re-post it here.

Shepard is a Professor in Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Brown University and conducts research on the intersections of humans and the natural world; anthropology and history, and material culture and the development of museums. Current projects are on time in indigenous cultures, bird-human interactions, and environmental knowledge.

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Shepard’s most recent book is the magisterial Spirits of the Air. “We learn of birds for which places and people were named; birds common in iconography and oral traditions; birds important in ritual and healing; and birds feared for their links to witches and other malevolent forces. Still other birds had no meaning for Native Americans. Krech shows us these invisible animals too, enriching our understanding of both the Indian-bird dynamic and the incredible diversity of winged life once found in the South. A crowning work drawing on Krech’s distinguished career in anthropology and natural history, Spirits of the Air recovers vanished worlds and shows us our own anew.”

The Nature and Culture of Birds

By Shepard Krech III

Social anthropologists invested in the analysis of human-animal relationships tend to be alert to cultural difference and assume that no two societies whose cultures differ will conceive of or perceive animals in precisely the same way.[1] Thus, when it comes to birds, difference looms in classifications of “things that fly”—in particular at the most inclusive levels termed in scientific biological classification the class, order, and family.[2] Furthermore, time and again the cultural analysis of birds has proven to be insightful. In a famous example, Ralph Bulmer explained that the Kalam of the highlands of Papua New Guinea consider the cassowary not as the bird that science classifies it as but as akin to mammals, and not because it possesses peculiar physical features but because it is perceived as an untrusty affine.[3] Other analyses of the bird-human relationship in the same vein—in short, the culture of birds—are legion,[4] in part because in anthropology, the source of classificatory impulse has been explored for well over a century.[5]

In contrast to much cultural analysis, here I wish to explore similarity not difference: Might the nature of particular birds bring them into the spotlight for attention regardless of culture, setting them up for similar conception (discrimination, naming, specificity in taxonomy), even if perception inevitably is fundamentally cultural?[6]

That difference in classifications of “things that fly” appears in particular at the most inclusive levels implies that it exists far less at the most exclusive levels. Indeed (many have remarked), it is striking how often people, regardless of culture, name and classify similar discontinuities in birds at the level of the genus or species.[7] Things like birds must really be, as Claude Lévi-Strauss remarked, “good to contemplate.”[8]

If discriminating and labeling specific birds overlaps, then might not the specific intrinsic, or natural, birdiness of particular birds affect their meaningfulness? At the end of the day, the large, flightless, plumeless, bony-casque-headed cassowary is morphologically and behaviorally a very odd “thing that flies.” Might not therefore its morphological and behavioral pecularities predispose it to stand out?[9] Only, Mary Douglas might have argued, if its peculiarities made it anomalous. Anomalies—by definition irregular or exceptional things, or, to use Douglas’s word, “deviants” that do not fit into the class in which they belong—are often marked, auspiciously or otherwise, for special consideration. Douglas’s best known analysis explored the taxonomic peculiarities of animals tabooed for consumption by the ancient Hebrews of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but even more powerful was her account of the central African Lele’s marking of the pangolin for avoidance and cultic behavior. This animal is a scaly anteater with little legs and a tree climber that gathers itself in a ball when alarmed or sleeping. It is very peculiar. The Lele, who considered it abnormal (an anomaly, in Douglas’s eyes), thought it possessed “the body and tail of a fish, covered in scales.” [10]

Does its abnormality arise unmediated from nature alone or from the intersections of nature with culture and society? Douglas, who cautions against the “unwary use of anomaly,” firmly argues that “animal anomalies are not instilled in nature but emerge from particular features of classificatory systems.”[11] Yet might nature together with knowledge and classification of nature cause certain elements to come into view as suitable for idiosyncratic thought, anomalous or not? Whether or not the widespread similarities in discrimination and labeling of discontinuity suggests an answer to this question remains to be seen. Here I join the flow with exploratory thoughts on the natural underpinnings of the cultural apprehension of “crow” in the Canadian subarctic, the yellow-billed loon in the high Canadian arctic, and owls in the American South.


In the fall of 1984 I traveled by scow from Fort McPherson, a Gwich’in town on the Peel River west of the lower Mackenzie River in northern Canada, with John and Caroline Kay and their son to their bush camp at what they called itjee gwijaan naih, which referred to a small creek that had broken through the bank right there and not farther down the river. In camp, we tended daily a snare line for snowshoe hares, set nets (under the ice) for fish, hauled and cut wood for fuel, and busied ourselves with various other chores. John took note of birds that were good to eat (e.g. ptarmigan), hung around the camp (gray jay), or were augural (the boreal chickadee when it called). He didn’t bother to name others like the pine grosbeak. And he went out of his way to caution me to be on the lookout for the bird that he called deetrih’ in Gwich’in and crow in English, because he is “smart and crooked.” Everyone had some story about Crow, usually as the traditional trickster or transformer. Caroline Kay told me, in a narrative punctuated by laughter, about the time that Crow dressed up, morphed, wed a girl that all the young men wanted to marry, and then “just shit all over her.” “Watch out for Crow,” she warned about an opportunistic bird that would swipe anything bright and portable, eat the food you cooked for your dogs, spoil your snare line if you did not get there first thing in the morning to retrieve dead hares—and morph to trick you in other-than-natural ways.

It is important to know that Crow is the vernacular name in English not for the American crow, whose range is far to the south, but for the common raven (Corvus corax). Pragmatic and cultural, John and Caroline Kay’s views of “Crow” converge in important respects with the portrait of these birds by observers trained in ornithology, ecology, or another biological science. And even if they do not grant ravens the cultural loading given them by the Gwich’in, scientists consider them, as do the Gwich’in, curious and attracted to baubles, tool users, extraordinary vocalizers, and very smart (no doubt due to both nature and nurture). Ravens moreover display emotions that lend themselves to comparison with human emotions. They are altogether formidable birds in nature—to the Gwich’in and many other native people along the Northwest Coast and in the adjacent continental interior, among whom a cycle of beliefs about the bird as trickster and transformer is remarkably developed, and to the scientist. Both indigenous people and non-native scientists no doubt notice, the first in the context of upbringing and prodigious environmental knowledge, the second as a result of observation and training, the bird’s natural traits in equal measure.[12]

Yellow-billed loon

If the nature of ravens sets them up for convergent notice of their natural proclivities, then might the nature of the yellow-billed loon, whose head appears atop dance caps, bill pointed 90 degrees skyward, donned by Copper Inuit of northern Canada in the early decades of the 20th century, not do so for this bird? Why did the Inuit incorporate the bill of this and not some other bird into caps worn when they danced and sang in hope of influencing other-than-human forces that controlled their lives?

That the Inuit connected loons and other birds with dance and song is well known. These particular Inuit reportedly placed the bill of a loon into the mouth of a child to promote the development of singing ability.[13] Yet given that the dance caps were worn in shamanic performance, more than song was involved in the selection of this bird. One hint of what more was involved is that an Inuit who wished to apprentice to a particular shaman sometimes presented him with a tent pole on top of which he tied a gull’s wing. The message was transparent: he wished to fly. Furthermore, in their performances the Copper Inuit interspersed dances and songs with ritual in which a shaman with his spirit helper divined taboo infraction and attempted to influence spirits of the air or to approach, through the air above or the water below, the mistress of the sea. Known by various names to various Inuit groups, and enshrined in myth, this woman deep in time was wooed by and married a fulmar, who took her to his land where she withered on a diet of fish. Her father rescued her but on the sea voyage home fulmars raised a storm, and to save himself he tossed her over the side of their craft, and when she tried to re-board cut off her fingers joint by joint. Her finger joints became whales and seals, and she sank to the bottom to become their mistress and all-knowing of taboo infractions that angered her. Shamans thus had to see to the confession of taboos and propitiate or intimidate her into releasing the animals for human consumption.

Shamans who wore yellow-billed loon caps as they performed associated themselves with a bird that possessed well-known essential qualities. Inuit often appropriated bird parts to accomplish certain ends. The Netsilingmiut (neighbors of the Copper Inuit) sewed avian amulets on clothing—the bill or head of a gull or Arctic tern for success in fishing, the feet or skin of a red-throated loon for kayaking speed, snowy owl claws for strong fists. Close observers of the natural world, they knew well the natural qualities of these birds. They understood that loons are not just remarkable vocalists but strongly territorial, visibly aggressive, powerful, direct, and high flyers, strong divers at great distances, tenacious and indefatigable, quick to use bills to inflict deep sternal wounds on all who threaten, and very hard to kill.

Three species of loons breed in Copper Inuit territory. The largest and heaviest with the greatest wingspan is the yellow-billed loon. If one were going to link oneself with the spirit of an avian species in order to reach, engage in combat with, and influence important other-than-human beings—to “fly through the air like a bird [or] go down into the ocean like a fish,” as one shaman was said to do—no species was more able than the yellow-billed loon. Thus the Copper Inuit deployed this bird—materially atop their caps, metaphorically on their magical journeys to the game-controlling sea goddess and elsewhere—in order to ensure various ends, including the availability of sea mammals and the continuation of life.[14]


The final example hypothesizing a natural predisposition for the cultural “marking” of birds concerns indigenous perceptions of owls in the 18th-19th century American South, a vast region in which native people overwhelmingly considered owls as dreaded, dangerous and feared birds. For most they were ill omens; the Choctaw, for example, considered the call of a great horned owl as a sign of sudden death somewhere, the wail of a screech owl to portend the death of a child in the family, and the hoots of probably the barred owl to prophesy the death of a relative.[15]

Many Indians linked owls with the spirits of the dead. Choctaws remarked that after death an interior soul, or ghost, went to the land of the dead but an exterior soul wandered the land at night and took the form of an owl or fox, revealing itself in a screech or bark that went unanswered. The Creek associated screech owls and great horned owls with ghosts or wandering souls—spirits that could kill any who heard them wail or hoot.

For many, owls were terrifying witches or spirits bent on malevolence. Chickasaws believed that witches could shift shape to become owls or nighthawks, and that the sound of a screech owl signaled a witch nearby; Choctaws associated great horned owls with witchcraft, and thought that a supernatural horned owl undertook lethal nocturnal forays against humans and animals; and Creeks regarded all owls with fear and the great horned owl in particular with “great terror.” They connected owls powerfully to witchcraft, believing that a witch or sorcerer, after taking out his intestines, could morph into an owl—probably the great horned—and fly about and do ill.

The Cherokee, about whom far more is known than other southern Indians, also linked owls with impending death or dire misfortune, as well as with ghosts; for them, the great horned, screech, barred, and long-eared owls were overwhelmingly malevolent. They thought that the screech owl forecast and brought death, sometimes by spoiling medicine given to a patient; if they caught one they cut it into pieces. They especially feared the long-eared owl, which they would not kill or eat. Their dread came mainly from a connection with witches that was transparent in language: the long-eared owl, great horned owl, and witch all had the same gloss. Witches were slippery and could morph into any bird but were most likely to take the form of an owl, whip-poor-will, common nighthawk, or hawk—or a wolf.

The picture was not all bleak in the region—various Indians considered the dueting of a great horned and barred owl a sign of good news; thought that as owls, neighbors could heal the sick; regarded a taxidermied owl was a powerful diviner; and believed that as a transformed owl, a man with special knowledge might discover the enemy’s intentions. But this beneficial side did not neutralize, much less counter, the overwhelmingly negative regard of owls.

These beliefs were widespread across 500,000 square miles and major cultural and linguistic boundaries. True, the Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw might have shared conceptions of owls through their related Muskogean tongues, but the Cherokee spoke Iroquoian, the Catawba Siouan, and others in the region Algonquian, Caddoan, and Timucuan languages. Furthermore, beyond the region, no category of birds in indigenous North America, except, perhaps, goatsuckers (the whip-poor-will and others) seems to be more closely associated with sickness and death than owls.[16]

Of the seven species of owls present in the south, the most feared were the great horned, long-eared, and screech owls. Why? To start with, most birds are diurnal, which some owls also are, but most owls are crepuscular or nocturnal, or both, and therefore anomalous as birds. Of the North American owls, the most diurnal are the snowy and short-eared owls, the northern hawk owl is active day and night, and the great grey owl is mainly crepuscular and nocturnal but during the breeding season is diurnal. The barn and great-horned owls are crepuscular and nocturnal, and the long-eared, screech, barred, spotted, boreal, and saw-whet owls are almost entirely nocturnal.[17]

As Ralph Bulmer, Eugene Hunn, Gregory Forth, and other ethnoornithologists have hypothesized, if a bird is a night bird then it is negatively marked—and the most nocturnal of owls would be most negatively construed, the least nocturnal least marked.[18] In fact, in the American South, the mainly nocturnal, negatively construed long-eared, great horned and screech owls support the hypothesis.[19]

A second reason for negative marking is the vocal repertoire of owls—the hoots, moans, whinnys, rattles, hissing, screams, and bill-snapping—that many find disconcerting—and is quite unlike almost all other birds.[20] The long-eared owl—the Cherokee witch—hoots up to two hundred times when advertising itself, each hoot several seconds apart; when disturbed, it barks and shrieks, sways, and cups its wings menacingly.

A third reason is the ability of owls—far more pronounced than in other species of birds—to morph; to swivel their head to gaze behind, to contort and bend their necks to look directly behind and above; to shape-shift from a puffed-out relaxed state to alert rigidity. When tense, long-eared owls are well known for being able to erect their horns and compress their bodies, shifting shape quickly from rotund to pencil-thinness, their open yellow eyes piercing the gaze of the observer.

Finally, owls are aggressive, especially when breeding, and some look disconcertingly human-like with round faces and frontally oriented eyes, or disturbingly mammalian with horns or “ears” (related to display not hearing). For good reason, some owls have acquired vernacular names like cat owl or monkey-face owl. Moreover, as some American Indians relate, owls attack suddenly and silently and go for the eyes. In combination, these various traits make owls—“birds” whose characteristics make them highly unusual as such—prime candidates for special perception.


It has been proposed here that the instrinsic qualities of ravens, yellow-billed loons, and owls make them excellent prospective symbols. At first glance this goes against the grain of cultural analysis. Yet as a conclusion it is far less radical than it appears. Years ago, the anthropologist Roy Ellen remarked that the cuscus, a marsupial marked for totemic significance by the Nuaulu of eastern Indonesia, was a good symbol because of its physical characteristics; not that it was marsupial rather than placental but that it was large, strong, and human-like in facial features—all “intrinsic qualities” crucial to a special status. In suggesting that anomalies “do not exist in an empirical vacuum,” Eugene Hunn concluded in similar fashion. And despite his analysis of the cassowary-as-affine, Bulmer himself apparently favored combining insights from natural history and cultural analysis.[21] The cultural analysis of bird-human intersections possesses admitted strengths, as does the elegant and compelling argument of Mary Douglas concerning the pangolin, but I agree with what I see as caution voiced by Ellen, Hunn, Bulmer (and others) that in ethnoornithology it helps to begin one’s analysis with the observations of indigenous people, which, if astute, take in the natural characteristics of birds that form a foundation for perception and meaning in the constellation of things that fly. Needless to say, by being attentive to the natural qualities of birds that bring them, as proposed, into the eye to start with, we bring balance to the cultural analysis of birds, unusual or not, anomalies or not, that intersect with humans.

[1] An early version of these remarks was presented as “Augural, powerful, and dangerous birds among Indians in the American south” at the annual meeting of the Society of Ethnobiology, Berkeley, CA, March 30, 2007.

[2] In scientific biological classification (associated with Linnaeus in the 18th century), the ranked categories within today’s class of Aves “birds” in the chordate phylum in the animal kingdom, from basic to inclusive, are species, genus, family, and order (often expanded by subspecies, superorder, subclass, etc). To exemplify, Falco peregrinus or the peregrine falcon is a species in the genus Falco (the true falcons) in the family Falconidae (true falcons and crested caracara) in the order Falconiformes (falcons, hawks, eagles) in the class Aves (birds).

[3] Ralph Bulmer, “Why is the cassowary not a bird? A problem of zoological taxonomy among the Karam of the New Guinea highlands,” Man 2 (1967), 5-25. An affine is a person related by marriage.

[4] E.g. E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer Religion (Oxford, 1956); Raymond Firth, “Twins, birds and vegetables: problems of identification in primitive religious thought.” Man 1 (1966), 1-17; J. Christopher Crocker, “My Brother the Parrot,” in The Social Use of Metaphor: Essays on the Anthropology of Rhetoric, ed. D. Sapir and J. C. Crocker (Philadelphia, 1977), 164-92; Steven Feld, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression (Philadelphia, 1982); Stanley Brandes, “Animal metaphors and social control in Tzintzuntzan,” Ethnology 22 (1983), 207-15; Steven Feld, “Dialogic editing: interpreting how Kaluli read Sound and Sentiment,” Cultural Anthropology 2 (1987), 190-210; Paul Sillitoe, “From head-dresses to head-messages: the art of self-decoration in the highlands of Papua New Guinea,” Man 23 (1988), 298-318; Steven Feld, “Cockatoo, hornbill, kingfisher,” in Man and a Half, ed. Andrew Pawley (Auckland, 1991), 207-13; Kenneth Kensinger, “Feathers make us beautiful” How Real People Ought to Live (Prospect Heights IL, 1995), 247-58; Marjorie Balzer, “Flights of the sacred: symbolism and theory in Siberian shamanism,” American Anthropologist 98 (1996), 305-18; Terence Turner, “‘We are parrots,’ ‘twins are birds’: play of tropes as operational structure,” in Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology, ed. James W. Fernandez (Stanford, 1991), 121-58; Michael Do ve, “Process vs. product in Bornean augury: a traditional knowledge system’s solution to the problem of knowing,” in Redefining Nature: Ecology, Culture and Domestication, eds. Roy Ellen and Katsuyoshi Fukui (Oxford, 1996), 557-596; Beth Conklin, “Body paint, feathers, and vcrs: aesthetics and authenticity in Amazonian activism,” American Ethnologist 24 (1997), 711-737; Gregory Forth, Nage Birds: Classification and Symbolism among an Eastern Indonesian People (New York, 2004).

[5] Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classfication (London, 1963); Rodney Needham, “Introduction,” Primitive Classification, vii-xlviii. For the larger context see Scott Atran, Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science (Cambridge, 1990) and for a popular account see Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (New York, 2009).

[6] That perception is cultural is not to say that it need always differ.

[7] These levels have often been termed the folk generic level. See Jared Diamond, “This-fellow frog, name belong-him dakwo,” Natural History 4 (1989), 16, 18-20, 22-23; James Boster, Brent Berlin, and John O’Neill, “The Correspondence of Jivaroan to Scientific Ornithology,” American Anthropologist 88 (1986), 569-83. 1991), 137-47; Eugene Hunn, “Sahaptin bird classification,” in Man and a Half, ed. Andrew Pawley (Aukland, 1991), 137-47; Brent Berlin, Ethnobiological Classification: Principles of Categorization of Plants and Animals in Traditional Societies (Princeton, 1992); Douglas Medin and Scott Atran, eds. Folkbiology (Cambridge MA, 1999); Scott Atran, “Itzaj Maya folkbiological taxonomy: cognitive universals and cultural particulars,” in Folkbiology, 166-94; Jared Diamond and K. D. Bishop, “Ethno-ornithology of the Ketengban people, Indonesian New Guinea,” in Folkbiology, 17-45.

[8] Claude Lévi-Strauss, For translation of “bonnes à penser” as the more felicitous “good to contemplate” than the widely-known “good to think,” see Krech, Spirits of the Air, x .

[9] Brent Berlin, “The chicken and the egg-head revisited: further evidence for the intellectualist bases of ethnobiological classification,” in Man and a Half, ed. Andrew Pawley (Aukland, 1991), 57-66.

[10] Mary Douglas, “The abominations of Leviticus,” Purity and Danger (London, 1966), 41-57; Mary Douglas, Implicit Meanings (NY: Routledge, 1991); Mary Douglas, “The Pangolin Revisited: A New Approach to Animal Symbolism”, in Signifying Animals: Human Meaning in the Natural World, ed. R. G. Willis (NY: Routledge, 1994), 23-33; Eugene Hunn, “The abominations of Leviticus revisited,” in Classifications in Their Social Context, eds. Roy Ellen and David Reason (London, 1979), 103-16; Ralph Bulmer, “The uncleanness of the birds of Leviticus and Deuteronomy,” Man 24 (1989), 304-21.

[11] Douglas, “The Pangolin Revisited,” 23.

[12] Bernd Heinrich, Ravens in Winter (New York, 1989); Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven (New York, 1999). On the raven cycle, see e.g. Stith Thompson, Tales of the North American Indians (Cambridge, 1929); Dell Hymes, “Mythology,” in HNAI: Northwest Coast, Wayne Suttles ed. (Washington, D.C., 1990), 593-601.

[13] For the Inuit, a loon’s song had nothing to do with the cultural associations common in American popular culture, viz. laughter, insanity, or wilderness.

[14] Shepard Krech III, “Birds and Eskimos,” in Arctic Clothing of North America, eds. J.C.H. King et al (London, 2005), 62-68.

[15] This section is based on Shepard Krech III, Spirits of the Air: Birds and American Indians in the South (Athens, GA, 2009), 145-150, 157-163, 170-171 and passim.

[16] Owls are also feared beyond Native North America—although it would indeed be rash to make any claim to universality of a belief in owls as malevolent.

[17] Claus König, Friedhelm Weick, and Jan-Hendrik Becking. Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

[18] Bulmer, “Kalam classification;” Forth, Nage Birds; Hunn, “Sahaptin.”

[19] The North American north presents a more complicated picture because of photoperiodicity: light low or absent during winter, and plentiful or round-the-clock in summer. Yet here the negatively regarded great-horned owl active in low winter light and far more neutral snowy owl present during summer daylight also lend support for the diurnal/nocturnal proposition.

[20] On this and succeeding paragraphs see also Bent, Arthur Cleveland. Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey. Order Falconiformes and Strigiformes. Part 2. New York: Dover, 1961, 140-53, 163; Waldo Lee McAtee, “Folk Names of Florida Birds,” The Florida Naturalist, October 1955, 103, 121-123 (monkey-face owl); Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls: A Guide to Bird Symbolism. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978), 115-20; J. S. Marks et al, Long-eared Owl (Asio otus). Birds of North America, ed. A Poole and F Gill, no 133 (Philadelphia, 1994).

[21] Roy F. Ellen, “The marsupial in Nuaulu ritual behavior,” Man 7 (1972), 223-238, p. 234; Hunn, “Abominations revisited,” 114.