A brief introduction to multispecies studies and ethnography (through birds)

By Claudia Câmpeanu, translated by Ágota Ábrán

(Original article in Romanian: Câmpeanu, Claudia. 2022. O scurtă introducere în studiile și etnografia multispecii. Sfertul Academic. Antropedia)

Thousands of rooks (Corvus frugilegus) spend the night in the tall trees of Cișmigiu from spring to autumn. It is unclear when they started doing this, but it is likely that their large presence is linked to the transformation of urban spaces (clearing of green areas, tree felling, expansion towards the edges) and the huge amounts of litter available in the city’s open pits. Corvids (of which rooks are a part) are intelligent, adaptable, generalist birds (they eat just about anything) with complex social structures. Their solution of roosting in the trees in Cișmigiu and indeed throughout Bucharest makes sense in this context. People complain about them – the excrement, the evening noise, or simply their too numerous existence. Their presence is clearly framed discursively as a problem, a sign of the park’s degradation, of the administration’s inefficiency or indifference, or simply as a danger (filth, disease, destruction of the ecosystem). Over the last few years, they have been the target of smaller or greater violence, some organised by the park administration, others by citizens: air rifles, firecrackers, lasers and other bright lights or loud sounds that only served to agitate them and prolong their noisy bedtime preparations. There were proposals for mass killings, relocations, even cutting down tall trees in the park.

The intolerance and virulent hatred of the crows in the park, otherwise normalized, deeply disturbed me, not only because of the parallels it evoked with other violent projects to “civilize” urban or national space, but also because I actually came to like crows. How might we live with them, and how might anthropology and other disciplines answer this question?

I took up bird watching six years ago. And so, the crow became not just the crow, but frugilegus, cornix, or monedula. Abandoned yards, stone quarries, or other ruderal spaces became promising landscapes essential to life. I spent hundreds of hours with others, who like me cultivated their attention so that they came to share the same world, for perhaps a few seconds, with another being, a particular bird. I learned to see and hear, to distinguish a presence, to walk or stand still, to look for places, to listen. I learned to try to imagine and feel what matters to a bird, and to understand how these two worlds were joined, co-constituted by gestures and actions, and by deep and complicated histories involving care, indifference, violence.

On 15 May 2020, the first day after the state of emergency, I went with V. and C., two biologists, to Vadu, by the sea. They had a job – monitoring bird species in a protected area – and I was a kind of curious and enthusiastic appendage. It was clear that none of them had any illusion that what they were documenting was a parallel, undisturbed, wild world populated by birds that had no idea they were being observed. More so, they did this work of observation with the respectful awareness that their presence was obvious and tolerated. V., with whom I spent a couple of hours in a wetland a few miles from shore, gently introduced me to a landscape that though clearly anthropized, abounded in concurrent possibilities for life, from all kinds of small birds in overgrown reeds, to bee-eaters digging in sand dunes, and water birds ushering each other out of our line of sight. Carefully, V. tried to temper the violence inherent in our presence (two people 15 minutes at a time in a fixed-point rotating with binoculars) and turn it into a practice of acknowledging the generosity with which other beings – not all – share their worlds with us. I didn’t realize this until I was struck by the contrast of the shoreline, and the dozens of people sprawled with tents, cars and good cheer all over the beach, celebrating surviving the two-month pandemic and related quarantine. It suddenly became clear that what the two biologists were doing was experimenting with ways of being in the world with these birds, with the recognition that although they live in different worlds, they share a common space of existence.

Cultivating attention is therefore not just about cultivating perception, in Anna Tsing’s words of “the art of observation” [1], or cultivating the revealing of living, dense, dynamic worlds governed by logics, motivations and aesthetics that are perhaps alien or invisible to us. Cultivating attention is, in fact, a practice of being in the world, a willed and assumed immersion, a practical recognition of the multitude of relationships by which we and others – other species – co-construct our semiotic and material worlds [2]. A kind of ethical-ethnographic practice perhaps, driven by the assumption of an affective relationship with other forms of living, of being alive on this planet.


What would such an approach look like in the case of the rooks of Cișmigiu? Thom van Dooren, a “field” philosopher who has worked extensively with and written about crows around the world, recounts how the crows from Brisbane (of a different species, Corvus orru) have encountered similar or even more drastic violence (mass poisoning, tree toppling), again in response to noise disturbance, droppings, or even attacks by individual crows, warning passers-by who get too close to the nest [17]. If public speeches, the actions of the authorities or the inhabitants are, he says, about a certain vision of the community, in the sense of who is included and under what conditions, who decides and who participates, the crows’ actions can be seen as political interjections by which they interrupt these visions and propose new ones. Crows are, in a sense, active participants in building multispecies communities, and recognizing this opens up other possibilities for people to experiment with how to live well with these Corvids. This does not mean the total and passive acceptance of their presence, but rather the social and political cultivation of an attentiveness to these neighbours and the opening up of spaces for experimentation and knowledge that respond punctually and provisionally to the questions ‘What is interrupted and what is proposed? How can we live together? How can we be transformed by this life together?’ Van Dooren gives examples of such spaces, from biologists who devote years to studying these birds on the streets of Brisbane, or people who change their route to avoid active nests, to people who care for injured crows or organise activities where children imagine what it would be like to be crows and build their own nest. No final solutions, then, but openness, experimentation, knowledge.


[1] „the art of noticing”, In Tsing, „Arts of Inclusion”, 192.

[2] Anna Tsing „arts of inclusion”, In Tsing, „Arts of Inclusion”.

[17] van Dooren, The Wake of Crows.