Listening to the music of the Austin, Tex.–band Shearwater, you get the sense that it has a bird fetish. In general, the group's lyrics are distinctly naturalist—painting pictures of wildlife and untouched ecosystems—but birds tend to appear in these narratives more often than other animals. In fact, the majority of the group's album covers are avian-themed, and the band's name itself refers to a seabird with especially long wings.
Almost all of this bird business is the work of the group's singer/songwriter, Jonathan Meiburg. A tall, skinny, unfailingly polite guy with a gentle voice—both speaking and singing—he powers both Shearwater's soaring songs and its avian aesthetic. But, Meiburg is no fetishist when it comes to birds—he doesn't just walk around town with binoculars and a copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds looking for feathered friends aloft in the sky or perched in trees. Meiburg has had fully immersive experiences, tracking birds on remote islands where he—or any other human, for that matter—is a rarity.
After graduating from Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee in 1997, Meiburg spent part of a life-changing year in Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands off the coast of Chile and Argentina getting to know a species of bird related to the falcon called the striated caracara—or Johnny Rook, as British sailors dubbed it, thinking it resembled the crowlike rook. The experience did not just inform his music; it landed him in a graduate program at the University of Texas.
Meiburg speaks reverentially about striated caracaras, which he characterizes as social, curious scavengers. It's a subject that he seems to be more comfortable talking about than his music—partly because he's like a traveler who has seen remote habitats so unbelievable to us town folk that he feels personally charged with the task of sharing the sights he's seen.
ScientificAmerican.com phoned Meiburg at his Austin home about to chat about his wild adventures, Shearwater's melodic new CD, Rook--recently named one of the year's most "overlooked records" by popular music blog Pitchfork Media--and his recent sojourn to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., during a day off from touring.
How did you develop your interest in birds?
When I graduated from college, I applied for this weird fellowship called a Watson Fellowship, where they send you basically anywhere you would like to go in the world for a year to do a project that you would like to do. The project that I pitched had to do with community life at the ends of the earth. I had become fascinated with the idea of people living in really remote situations, and what their lives were like and their relationship to the place where they lived.
I was astonished that they gave [the fellowship] to me, because I had never left the southeastern U.S. before. But then I got on a plane to Tierra del Fuego. From there, I realized I could get to the Falklands really easily. So, I went to the Falklands. In Stanley, I met this guy, Robin Woods, in the little boardinghouse I was staying in. He is this British ornithologist who was there to lead a survey of a species called the striated caracara in the outer most islands of the Falklands. He needed an assistant, and I was like, "Me, me! Pick me!" I thought it would be interesting to see these islands because nobody ever goes out there.