Birds, central to so many different indigenous ways of life, portray the ways cultures inhabit and perceive the natural world, which bird stories tell us is almost unimaginably different to non-indigenous cultures. Many indigenous people have their own science.
The Bosavi people of Papua New Guinea, for example, create "song maps" – they sing complex and poignant story songs about recently departed relatives by describing the places they hunted and gardened, along with a particular quality of the light and the sound of water in those places – all somehow captured through the eyes of a bird imagined soaring over the landscape.
Researchers gathered the location of some 7,000 of these places. "When you put all of those points on a GPS, they don't overlap and it's a map, a poetic cartography of the forest," says Steven Feld, an anthropologist and senior scholar at Santa Fe's School for Advanced Research, who studied the Bosavi for more than 25 years. In a clash of old and new, Feld says this traditional map has been used to negotiate a right of way with Exxon for a natural gas pipeline.
And while we may enjoy the trill of bird song, the Bosavi hear in the songs of 125 species near their village, a richly detailed ecological portrait. "They instantly know the time of day, the season of the year, what layer of the forest canopy the bird is in, what fruits are in season, soil acidity changes, the knowledge of the migratory situation, who's nesting where.
"Listening becomes a science journal, a system for sensing on an everyday basis and putting into memory all of the diagnostics we would be writing down or using equipment to measure," says Feld. "It's a deep science."
Fathoming alternative ways of sensing the world can tell us much about the varieties of perception. Felice Wyndham, an ethnoornithologist and ethnobotanist who works on the EWA project, says peoples she has worked with have the ability to move their consciousness out of their body and intimately sense the world, which she called a "heightened form of mindfulness".
"It's quite common, you see it in most hunter-gatherer groups," she says. "If you are in a highly diverse and sensuous natural environment, you are also going to be doing that with all of the organisms, the plants, the water and the birds – especially the birds – because they fly and it gives you a completely different perspective."
There is also information for biologists in the world's traditional bird knowledge. In Australia researchers learned from aborigines that some birds the locals call "firehawks" – the common names are whistling kite, black kite and brown falcon – pick up flaming twigs from one fire to start another, to flush out prey. In collaboration with indigenous people they documented it and published a paper.