THIEVES AND KILLAHZ: Channel-Billed Cuckoos, The Child and Interspecies Reconfiguring
by Blake Alan Lawrence
THIEVES AND KILLAHZ
Channel-Billed Cuckoos, The Child and Interspecies Reconfiguring
Blake Alan Lawrence
Image credit: Channel-Billed Cuckoo, Mr Ping Pong
ANGRY FACE / SULLEN FACE
Like many of the contributors to this issue, I am a committed participant in the activity of noticing and attunement we call birdwatching.1 This has led me also to be a participant in the techno-ecologies of social-media based birding groups. Generally, these spaces feature images and stories, and responses using language of joy, enthusiasm and excitement. While techno-twitching, I have watched these sentiments quickly evaporate (and their language quickly become violent) at the sharing of images of several species — none more-so than the Channel-Billed Cuckoo (Scythrops novaehollandiae).
The migratory beings we signify as Channel-Billed Cuckoo (CBC) are the largest (and loudest) birds to have evolved to develop the complex behavioural strategy of avian brood-parasitism (Davies, 1990). Brood-parasites lay their eggs in the nests of an ecologically/evolutionarily enmeshed host species. In the case of CBC these hosts include Choughs, Crows and Magpie-Larks, but most commonly the beloved and charismatic Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina) (Davies, 1990).
Laying their eggs in the nest of their host species requires the inciting of defensive aggression on the part of the Currawongs. Defensive anti-predator behaviour is described as 'mobbing behaviour' and so the CBC consequentially "incites mobbing behaviour" (Wood, 2004). While a male CBC riles up the Currawongs, a female slips in behind him to lay an egg in an unguarded nest. Once they have laid their egg they will focus on re-fueling on figs and seeds before beginning their flight North to Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste or Sulawesi in Indonesia (Wood, 2004).
Contrary to common conception, CBC babies do not kick their host siblings out of the nest2 (Wood, 2004). They do however, have a voracious appetite — host chicks die of starvation while the Channel-Bill grows and grows — once strong enough, it too will fly instinctively North.
Below is a selection of anonymised comments from various Facebook birding groups including Australian Native Birds (ANB) and Australian Bird Identification (ABID), which I will return to later:
Their call always brings to mind angry vomiting.
Bastard things. Including their Young.
Ugly noisey cuckoo too. Go back to New Guinea please!
It's not pleasant hearing all the birds we love so distressed by these devious visitors.
Looks a bit grotesque.
They're thieves and killers.. Not coming on my property ever again.
I love birds, but I find these parasitic birds a vile offence.
Poor surrogate Mum.
Go home greedy, annoying bird!
Lee Edelman (2004) offers a searing critique of a fervorous social and political fidelity to the symbol of The Child. Edelman's polemic emerged at a time when — as now — queer liberty and women's reproductive rights are under siege from conservative movements, who exploit this symbolic Child as a means of control over others' bodies (particularly queer and women's bodies).3 Inversely, this devout fidelity to The Child is less extended to living, breathing children (who have been born), whose access to food, housing and healthcare do not seem to register as worthy of concern for religious fanatics — even less so if they are black, immigrant, transgender or, say, the underage victim of incestuous rape.
Edelman draws from Lacanian psychoanalysis, and in particular ideas of the Letter and the Sinthome (symptom). Without diving down any Borromean rabbit holes The Letter speaks to the mass of material signification that sediment around a referent — always in the order of the Real, but ultimately meaningless and "dead." For Edelman, the symbolic Child is also a product of this Letter, which he refers to in its "cadaverous materiality."
The Sinthome then is a bubbling-up from the unconscious, in which a (human) subject finds joissance (pleasure/enjoyment), but which may also trap them in certain drives. Critically non-(re)productive, a sinthome might look like a propulsion towards abusive relationships, high-risk sexual practices or even *gulps* bird-watching.
Edelman's "Sinthomosexual" is a faggy proposition for a queer leaning-into this symptom as a strategy to ~abort~ The Letter and The Child and The Real altogether, and thus the social and political control they sediment on queer bodies.
There has been considerable critique of No Future for its desertion of queer and non-normative families, its inability to perceive of queer futurities, or the privilege of access to its propositions for an uptake of (white) irony as an abortive strategy.4 Edelman's central concern regarding the weaponisation of The Child is, however, as pertinent and urgent as ever — maybe, more-so.
Returning to CBC with The Child overwing. The pervasiveness of The Family is so great that it seeps into our perceptions of the more-than-human world and inhibits the cuckoo chick from even registering as a baby.5 The moralising anxiety of the language of commenters' responses to posts about CBC can be broken down as so:
- First, the parents are red-eyed, noisy aggressors, inciting mobbing behaviour, and therefore can only be perceived as antagonists.
- Second, the baby is not the biological child of the host, and therefore the Parents have been deceived and the Child is an imposter — gluttonous, murderous and monstrous.
- Third — and this hits home — because the CBC is migratory, it cannot possibly be perceived as a native species, and is therefore an unwelcome, invasive pest.6
These eco-fable feedbacks reveal much about the desperation with which particularly certain humans will cling to the symbolic. We can see in the first, constructions of morality and the family under siege, in the second The Child and parenthood, and in the third—constructions of white-settler nationalism, migration, place, home and invasion.
ALLEGIANCE / ABORT
Unlike Edelman, I do not wish to abort the order of the Real — which is the big changeling in the room. The Real is an all-consuming egg slipped around us while we perform defensive "mobbing behaviours" to have our pronouns respected, or for marriage equality, or for the next change in government.7 Edelman and Lacan rely on an (immaterial/unconscious) void of signification from which The Letter sediments itself into the dead strata of The Real (Edelman 2004). I find beauty in the geology of The Letter because I do not see it as cadaverous at all but a quivering, vibrating, raving field of indeterminate agential materiality. Maybe I do not want to abort the Real because I am having too much fun here. A pig in shit. Vibrant Matter, babe.8
What if we extract a few stem-cells from the foetal Real and figure something new?
Within the rhetorical maligning of the Channel-Billed Cuckoo we can locate violent anxieties that emerge when the Western, nuclear, settler-symbolic Family is troubled. Perhaps then, a queer attunement to the material realities of CBC life-knots might offer fertile ground for the Family's variegation — an invitation into this attunement is what I playfully offer here. Can we start to perceive the cuckoo baby as a child worthy of affection, tenderness and care? Could we start by figuring this cuckoo child as having not two parents, but an interspecies four?9 Can we learn from CBC what it means to belong not to a nation-state but many storied places?10 Finally, can we imagine ourselves within their interspecies knottings, as they roost, root and rail through the night in the trees that fruit in our gardens?
Barad, Karen Michelle. Meeting the Universe Halfway Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
Barad, Karen. "TransMaterialities: Trans/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings." GLQ 21.2-3 (2015): 387-422.
Course, Magnus. "Changelings: Alterity Beyond Difference." Folk life 55.1 (2017): 12-21.
Davies, S. J. J. F., et al. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016.
Kóvskaya, Maya."Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene. By Anna L. Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena, and Feifei Zhou", Redwood City, Stanford University Press, 2021, ISBN: 9781503615045. " Asian anthropology 20.4 (2021): 278-81.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The then and there of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, Andrew S. Mathews, and Nils Bubandt. "Patchy Anthropocene: Landscape Structure, Multispecies History, and the Retooling of Anthropology: An Introduction to Supplement 20." Current anthropology 60 (2019): S186-97.
Van Dooren, Thom. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
Waitling, Thomas. Annotated Drawing of Channel-Billed Cuckoo, 1792-1797, Natural History Museum.
Wood, K. A. "The Channel-Billed Cuckoo at Wollongong, New South Wales: Notes on Migration, Abundance and Breeding." Australian field ornithology 21.3 (2004): 89-106.
- Attunement here is deliberately appropriated from early-development and parenting vernacular as well as new-age spirituality — though I am also making reference to recent writing by multi-species anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing and their collaborators. ↩
- Though this is the case for many other cuckoos and is a similarly intricately evolved and effective strategy for successfully surviving childhood as a parasitic bird. ↩
- In 2022, we have global trans-panic and the winding back of abortion laws in the US. ↩
- Jose Esteban Munoz (2009) famously wrote Cruising Utopia: The Then And There Of Queer Futurity in response — which should, however, be read as an accompaniment to No Future and less a rejection of it. ↩
- Furthermore, we have fabulated this exact anxiety into moralising stories that re-enforce it in feedback loops across the globe. These include the fairy Changeling or auf in the UK, Ogbanje in Africa and Pun Domo in Chile. These examples have nuanced differences, though all involve reproduction, imposters and an existential threat to the nuclear family. ↩
- This third point I want to elaborate momentarily, because this construction also extends to the natural sciences, where migratory species are labelled "vagrant." It is as if we are entirely incapable of perceiving "home" as something that traverses national borders. ↩
- All symbolically meaningless and materially meaningful — or is it, materially meaningless and symbolically meaningful? Let us run with materially and symbolically indeterminate. ↩
- I am making reference here to contributions from New Materialism, in particular Jane Bennet (2010) and Karen Barad (2007, 2015). Deliberately drawing parallels between Barad's physics-based rejection of a material void, and Bennet's troubling/expanding of the body/object/thing through new political imaginaries. Both inform my playful rejection of Edelman's void of signification and the dead matter of The Letter. ↩
- As is not entirely uncommon for children of same-sex parents. ↩
- To borrow language from Thom Van Dooren's Flight Ways: Life and Loss at The Edge of Extinction (2014). ↩