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Birdman/Bandman: A Q&A with Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg

The rock band's front man doesn't just sing about birds, he follows them to the ends of the earth
shearwater Jonathan Meiburg



© ANNIE RAY

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.

So, even though they weren't your original subjects, your trip started to center around them?
What I hadn't realized is what is actually out there: a world in which all of the vertebrate fauna is avian. It's a little like New Zealand might have been before there were people. There's these seabirds and albatrosses and penguins and petrels and prions and shearwaters and a lot of the passerine birds—the land birds. There are some endemic subspecies and full species. There are flightless ducks. There is this weird little wren—Cobb's wren—and there is this bird of prey, the caracara, that lives out there and preys on everything else.

There's so much life packed into such a tiny space on these islands. This one island called Steeple Jason Island has 120,000 blackbird albatross nests on it during the year and about 70 pairs of striated caracaras, on an island that's about 700 hectares [three square miles]. It's like Manhattan—tightly packed and crammed full of life. Just like when you're in a crowd in New York and everyone is exactly the same distance apart, that's the way seabird colonies are: Every bird is just far enough away from its neighbor that it can't reach it with its beak.

Seeing this and not really anticipating it in any way just completely blew my mind. I had no idea that the world could be like that.

How did you get from this epiphany to a becoming a semipro ornithologist?
I came back from a lot of these remote places with a lot of questions about the strange birds that were the only species you'd see in some these islands. I went into grad school at the University of Texas and started studying birds.

But, your master's degree is in geography, correct?
That was sort of a backdoor way of getting in because I figured I wouldn't be able to get into the biology program. I ended up spending most of my time in the biology building because geography is such a flexible discipline. It's so broad that you can make it into anything you like. In my case, it was biogeography, which has to do with the distribution of living things.

These days, with the climate shifting, that subject is not a purely academic exercise. I took a course—this was about six years ago—on the biogeographical consequences of climate change and it was sparsely attended. Now, classes like that are jam-packed.

Did you have to produce a master's thesis?
Yeah, I did. It was called "The Biogeography of the Striated Caracara". The bird sort of comes with a riddle that [Charles] Darwin noticed. He devotes more page space to [the striated caracara] than to almost any other species in The Voyage of the Beagle—which is funny, because I have seen abridged versions of it where it gets cut out, and I don't know why. He stopped in the Falklands twice and they were an extremely obvious and striking feature of the landscape. He wasn't particularly fond of the Falklands but this bird really intrigued him. He said in one of his notebooks, "This bird, doubtless for some good reason, has made these islands its metropolis."

When you see these birds, you assume they'd be as common as crows, or the grackles here in central Texas, because they seem so adaptable, especially to different kinds of food, and interested in novel objects and trying to figure out how they can make use of them. You look at their close relatives—there are 10 species of caracara, almost all of them live in South America—and they all sort of share, to one degree or another, this kind of behavior. Though none of them are as extreme about it as the striateds are. They're sort of like crows, but there are crows in South America. They are more like the falcon attempt at a corvidlike scavenger.

Anyway, they are only on these outer islands in the Falklands and—more mysteriously and obscurely—on a few islands of Argentine and Chilean Tierra del Fuego. And nowhere else. So, why are they only there? It doesn't make much sense on the face of it. My thesis was an inquiry into all the reasons why that might be so.

What's the strongest hypothesis?
Their genus, Phalcoboenus, goes up the spine of the Andes. There's one group in [the] páramo in Ecuador and Colombia and there's another just a little bit after the upper Marion Valley. You get mountain caracaras through the alpine zones of the Peruvian Andes and the Chilean. And there's the white-throated caracara that goes down into the southernmost Andes. And then you have these things out on the islands. So, really it's an Andean group.

I think the mechanisms that split them up overtime are probably climatic in origin. You have this alpine zone of habitat that's really weird. If you go up to the top of one of these volcanoes in Ecuador—like Antisana near Quito—and you see this environment up there, it looks to all the world just like the Falklands. You even have the same species of plant and animal. I saw a little bird called a bar-winged cinclodes, which you can also see at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, thousands of miles away. Altitude is proxy for latitude in these environments, so you have this more or less continuous band of this kind of habitat that just stretches the entire length of the continent.

So, they are bounded on one side by the Andes and on the other by the Pacific?
Why the [mainland] species don't go down to the forests and things, I'm not really sure. But, what happened is the Patagonian ice sheet split the [striated caracara] off of that stock. The last glacial maximum was about 18,000 years ago, when the Patagonian ice sheet expands to include about 10 meters [33 feet] of global sea level. Based on modeling, you see how it could have separated these stocks of caracaras. Then it would have continued pushing [the striated caracaras] out basically right to edge of the continent, and presumably would have gone on pushing them into oblivion. But the thing is, [the ice sheet] kind of stops right there at the edge [of South America], especially down around Cape Horn and those islands down there—those were not glaciated at last glacier maximum. Sea level was down by probably about 120 meters [400 feet]—there was a lot more land in that area. And the other thing that probably would have been there is seabirds and sea mammals because they've been around a really long time and they had to live somewhere.

But, the places that they were are now underwater. There's a place called the Birdwood Banks that's just off near Isla de los Estados—between there and the Falklands—and its highest point right now is only about 50 meters [165 feet] down. That would have been this "Birdlantis"—a lost, big island that probably would have been chock-full of seabirds.

You can't prove it, but looking at their distribution now, it seems most likely that they were separated out into this isolated area and walled in by the glaciers and by the only land would have been available in mainland South America would just have been Patagonian steppe—which would have been even more harsh and arid than it is now. So, it's hard to imagine anyplace providing you with lots of food.

But, these seabird colonies are wonderful as far as that goes. They're just absolutely chock-full of yummy morsels during at least part of the year. And so, I think they sort of got stuck in this situation and adapted to it. And now you find them in places that are still more or less unchanged from that time—with tussock grass (Poa flabellata is the species) and these seabirds and high winds and cliffs and oceans. They're extremely good at exploiting that environment. However, I think being confined to that simple island ecosystem really made it impossible to ever go back to the mainland.

Your interest in birds began in untouched, remote nature, essentially. How do you maintain and continue your hobby in the well-worn U.S.?
I take my binoculars with me and I enjoy sort of birding for the sake of it. Going to these types of places takes an extreme effort. It's not one that you can really make lightly or certainly not in the context of touring around with a rock band.

On this last tour though, we had a day off in Washington, D.C., and I went to the Smithsonian. I thought I'd just go the natural history museum and walk around. But when I walked in, I suddenly remembered that this guy, Storrs Olson, if he wasn't retired would still be there. He's like "Mr. Subfossil Bird Bones" (and a lot of other subfossil animals, but especially birds—and especially island birds). He had published a paper that I'd used in my thesis describing an extinct species of caracara from a tar seep in Cuba. He mentioned, in this one little sentence in the paper, bones from this very large, possibly flightless caracara from Jamaica, but doesn't provide any more description than that. I thought, "That's really interesting. He's talking about a flightless caracara, like a bird of prey that can't fly, but lived in Jamaica."

So, I went to the security desk and got [them] call to his office. He answered—and you have your 10 seconds—and I said something or the other about caracaras. And he said, "Okay, I'll be right down." So, he came down and he took me back to his office and we talked for about an hour and a half about island birds and extinct giant raptors. And he showed me the bones of this bird. His full description is in press right now. It's going to come out in the Journal of Raptor Research. So, I got to see the bones of this extinct, probably flightless caracara from Jamaica. It's just an unbelievable thrill to see things like that. I could have walked right by his office and never known that experience was potentially waiting for me.

When we spoke about your Falkland Islands fieldwork, you described swooping, inquisitive birds, like the caracara. That stands in sharp contrast to the lyrics in a song like "Rooks," where you have scores of birds dying off at once. Is that some sort of doomsday-style, climate change warning?
People keep calling it apocalyptic, which I don't agree with at all. I think the very notion of an apocalypse is kind of invented out of human hubris—the idea that once we cease to be, that everything must cease to be. People can't stand the idea of the world going on without us.

That song is more about balances being shifted. It's painting in real broad strokes, but I was imagining all these crows just suddenly dying, which in smaller numbers they've certainly been doing, especially with West Nile [virus] here. Then, there are starlings eating the bodies. So, it's not just like all the birds are dying; some of the birds are dying. That's sort of what we see as people: We privilege certain species over other ones.

Take the grackles that have moved here into central Texas in the last 30 years or something. They are everywhere. When I mow my lawn there will be 15 grackles on it within 10 minutes. They know that when people are mowing their lawns there is going to be stuff to eat. They've figured this out. But, the diversity of species that you see in Austin is really really low. Still, that kind of rat and roach world is the sort of world we're making.

So, you're talking about the success of scavenging or opportunistic species?
It does seem like it's opportunistic time. But, more so I think the opportunistic species are the ones that are more able to figure out how to live off of us. As we keep expanding everywhere, if you can't live with us then you're habitat shrinks. But, if you can, then it's extending.

Is that theme throughout the album: this changing world brought on by humans—climate change, among other things—that other species having to adjust to?
It doesn't have to just be global warming—we're changing the world in lots of ways. The world is going to be different, and the old world is going away and it's not going back. That's just how it is and it's hard not to just feel despair about it a lot of the time, because the old world is so beautiful. So few people even get to see just a glimpse of it these days. I feel incredibly lucky that in the course of being led by the nose by these birds, I've gotten to stumble into certain places that people have not been and their impact is a lot less than the places you see day to day. It gives you some sense of what we're actually losing. It's tremendous and it's vanishing both visibly and invisibly.

You seem to have two parallel existences: One as a musician on the road, which is often harshly real and urban, and another as a sort of wide-eyed appreciator of nature.
I don't count [touring in a rock band] as traveling. You see dark rock clubs in cities all over the place. But I do love making music. If you could eliminate the riding in a van part of it or the having to wait for your reviews to come in part of it or all the parts that are not so much fun, we'd happily do it forever.

And making music, when it's good, has that same sort of expansive open feeling that doing fieldwork does. You can feel your mind opening and accepting things as they come to you and really trying to see what's going on in a visceral, metaphorical way.

But, writing and arranging a song in a studio or practice space isn't quite the same as dodging Johnny rooks on the Falklands, is it?
There's nothing like dodging Johnny rooks. But, even if I went ahead and got my PhD and went for my full professorship and all that kind of thing, the amount of time I'd get to spend dodging Johnny rooks is extremely small. That's just an experience that your not going to get to have for very long or very often, if ever, in your life. So, you take your thrills where you can find them, I guess.

Do you ever consider going for your PhD at some point?
I looked into it fairly seriously. They basically accepted me into U.T. [University of Texas], but they said, "Look, you're going to have to take a year's worth of some remedial stuff that you missed in your English and geography degrees, like organic chemistry, biostatistics, physics." I'd have to take a year's worth of that stuff, and then the program is about six years. And really, to do it justice—which is really the only way to do it—I'd really have to stop playing music. Faced with those alternatives, and especially given the window of opportunity we seem to have with the music right now—we've been tremendously fortunate—I don't want to give this up right now. But, I did love visiting Storrs Olson in his office. My god!

Plus, academia isn't really going anywhere, and hopefully neither are the caracaras.
My hope, especially with the caracaras, is that almost no one paid any attention to them for a really long time and they managed to make it. And I'm hoping nobody continues to pay attention to them for a little while longer, so that won't be the end for them. And there's so little work done on them that's it's easy to keep tabs on it. I just try to stay in touch with the people who are aware of them and care about them.

In fact, you just went back to see them in the Falklands recently, right?
Yes, that was almost a 10-year anniversary repeat of that first survey. I got to go back and see these places with a very different understanding of what was going on.

The videos you shot on the trip show a lot of swooping and interacting on the part of the birds, as if they weren't at all intimidated by your presence.
Some pairs are really aggressive and territorial, and if you're near their nest, they'll just come and try to scare you off. Also, the younger birds in particular just don't care and they'll just come up to you and try to take things out of your bag. It's a really strange behavior for a bird of prey.

The most interesting thing is when you see these birds—a lot of people say this—you just feel this presence or personality in there that you don't get necessarily with other birds or other animals. There is just something about them that you recognize. It's like this bird is like me in some important way. There's some attribute that you feel like you share with them. It's a little unnerving. I'm not used to being looked at like that by another species.

It's like the bird is studying you.
Yeah. You really have that feeling.

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