Flying with Birds

Photograph of Swan by Mukbil Rifaat.

With thanks to Oxford Mail for sharing this study into Birds and Society by Andy Gosler,

Research Lecturer in ornithology and conservation at Oxford University:

What does it tell us about  understanding  people’s needs as conscious human beings? (Penstorm)

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“IT SEEMS that I have intrigued people. An evolutionary ecologist who found faith begs a few questions. “How do your theology and ornithology intersect?” I was asked.

I’ll answer by describing a watershed experience in my career.

In the months following the death of Colonel Gaddafi on October 20, 2011 a window of hope opened for Libya.

A tide of optimism surged across the country with demands not just for political change, but also for the planting of true democracy.
Together with popular uprisings in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere, it became known as the Arab Spring.
A definitive history of this, its failures and successes, is yet to be written, but at the end of 2011 in collaboration with Oxford Research International (ORI) I was offered the chance to contribute questions to the first ever social survey of Libya.

The survey of more than 2,000 systematically selected, and individually interviewed, adult respondents was designed to represent the voice of a nation in transition, to capture the mood of the people, their hopes and fears for the future, for healthcare, education, security and prosperity, and of course for political governance.
The unique opportunity then arose to canvas the views of the Libyan people on environmental matters and so, with the help of my colleague Christoph from ORI, we prepared four environmental questions, ranging in scope from the role of human stewardship and climate change to ‘the bird question’.

Christoph told me the inclusion of environmental questions was itself unique in the history of post-conflict social survey.

As with many of the questions in the survey, these asked respondents where they would position themselves on a scale between two alternative statements.

In the case of the bird question these alternatives were ‘birdsong is important to me’ versus ‘other things are more important than birdsong’.

When I suggested to Christoph that these weren’t really alternatives and that surely given the state of things in Libya everyone would say there were more important things, he said “trust me, you’ll be surprised”.
I was. Of almost 2000 respondents who expressed an opinion, 23.8 per cent stated categorically that birdsong was important to them, and only 33.8 per cent said categorically that other things were more important.

Of the remainder, almost half positioned themselves more towards birdsong.

As nobody was asked whether they thought birdsong was unimportant, only to assess its relative importance to them, it may have played a role in the lives of the great majority.

But clearly a substantial number wanted to send a strong signal that the natural world, that is the God-created rather than the human-created order, held great importance for them.

Even allowing for the potential problems with social survey data, for me, two important questions arise from these results.

First, did you expect these results? And second, how does it change your opinion of the Libyan people to know this?

You might like to reflect on where you would have placed yourself in answer to the question.

At the OxPeace Conference in 2012, after a short visit to Benghazi, I had the opportunity to mention all this to a Member of Parliament who was active in peace building. When I put the question

‘how does this change your opinion of the Libyan people?’, he sat back in his chair and said ‘wow!’ He understood the significance of what we had found. I would put it like this: It is impossible to hate someone who also loves Robins!

Nature is our shared heritage, and concern for it cuts across all political, tribal and religious difference.

My research has shifted from ornithology to ethno-ornithology – the study of human engagement with birds – and the founding of the Ethno-ornithology World Archive (EWA).

EWA, of which I am director, will document what birds mean to people everywhere.

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