Saturday Morning’s Politics of Seeing

By Nancy Jacobs

Nancy Jacobs, Professor of History at Brown University, Rhode Island (USA), provides a rich and personal account of practicing interdisciplinary research. On a field trip to uncover knowledge and beliefs about the African grey parrot in Cameroon, Nancy worked together with her brother (an experienced birder) and her field assistant (an ornithologist), gaining deep insights not only into science and culture, but particularly the behavior of birds and birdwatchers.

Romeo Omer Kamta Tchoffo, David Jacobs, and Nancy Jacobs are based in Somolomo, Cameroon. The Congo Basin Institute located there is administered by UCLA and provides a base for ecological research in the Dja Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nancy’s research was funded by a Seed Grant from the Institute for Environment and Society at Brown University (IBES).


We have been working for a week on my research project about knowledge of African grey parrots. As a historian, not an ornithologist, I am interested in what people say about the parrots, so we have spent our time so far conducting interviews in villages just outside the forest reserve. Dave, my brother, is a retired social worker from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who has been watching birds for more than 50 years. He has come to Cameroon for two weeks to assist me with my research, and to watch birds. Romeo is a master’s student in applied ecology and wildlife management at the University of Dschang in Cameroon, and is working with me as a field assistant. Romeo’s thesis is on the richness and abundance of bird species in three different habitats in the Dja Faunal Reserve. He sets up mist nets, catches birds, identifies them, and then analyzes the quantitative data. He also tests for gastrointestinal parasites in their feces. He has been identifying the birds that he nets, but up until now, has never been “birding” with binoculars.

We have had a good week; my research has gone very well. Romeo provided introductions and translations and Dave applied his social work skills to ethno-ornithological questioning, skillfully conducting some of the semi-structured interviews. Dave and Romeo have also been talking birds. None of Dave’s children has ever shown any penchant for birdwatching, so he was pleased when Romeo said, with both Cameroonian politesse and sincerity, that he was looking forward to “my first time birdwatching with my father.”

On Friday we took motorcycle taxis from Somolomo, traveling west across several small watersheds toward the hamlet of Komba-Tida. Four elders who knew a lot about parrots came out and told us some wonderful stories. We took many photos and left several gifts. Dave noted that the area offered good birding spots, so today, in our free time, we decided to travel back toward Komba-Tida. We stopped short of the settlement so that we could concentrate on seeing birds, rather than hearing stories.

Dave is an accomplished birder and he has prepared well for this trip by studying Nik Borrow and Ron Demey’s Birds of Western Africa. He has highlighted common species and color-coded their location in the book using fluorescent labels. On some maps, he has added dots indicating our location in the Dja forest. He knows his (taxonomic) families and with the “Quick Index to the Main Groups of Birds,” he can quickly flip to the right page. In addition to his pair of good-quality binoculars, Dave carries two cameras—one with a 400 mm lens. (On seeing it, one man who spoke little English just said, “Zoom!”) Actually, my brother does not fit the stereotype of an obsessive “lister.” He likes to see new birds and to identify them, but he also understands that, realistically, he might not locate and observe all possible birds—he accepts that this is how birding works. As an ecologist, Romeo has an eye for detail in the forest but he does not have a camera. He has borrowed Dave’s second pair of binoculars and is only just learning to use them. Still, he does a wonderful job of drawing Dave’s attention to many birds.

David and Romeo in action.
David and Romeo in action. Photo: Nancy Jacobs.

I myself am not really a birdwatcher. I know quite a few birds, but in the way that well-informed people know historical battles—with a general understanding of location, size, character, and context. But I can’t tell you which regiments fought where and, unfortunately, I probably cannot see which hornbill is perched on that branch. I am deputized to carry the field guide and to look up the species in question. “Rufous-bellied helmetshrike,” Dave calls to me, as if he were a surgeon requiring a scalpel. Looking through his binoculars, he reads the bird’s distinguishing markers aloud: “Red bill, blue cheeks, white chest.”

Collaborating in the art of identification
Collaborating in the art of identification. Photo: Nancy Jacobs

Dave notices the diagnostic bill of a red-billed dwarf hornbill flying past, and Romeo points out the white underside of its wings. When a large black and white hornbill passes over, Dave thinks it is a white-thighed, but Romeo points out that its tail is white only on the outer feathers. They confer on whether it could be a black-and-white-casqued hornbill, but the skin around the eyes and on the throat is blue, rather than black. They finally decide it is a black-casqued, although its tail differs from the one in the book. Dave explains to us that the individuals of a species can and will vary from those depicted in the book, especially when the book is dedicated to a region as large as West Africa.

3 credit David Jacobs_clean
A black-casqued hornbill? Photo: Dave Jacobs.

We are close to the village and several people pass us by. One man, named Patrick, comes by with a net and a bag full of fish. Romeo, who is curious about the variety of species, asks me to photograph them. Patrick knows the types and pulls them out for us to see. I photograph six. While Romeo talks further with Patrick about nearby elephant footprints and waterfalls and I admire the fish, Dave wanders off down the path to find more birds and to distance himself from the conversation. He has been talking to people all week, and knows from experience that these encounters can cut into his bird time.

Patrick showing the different species of fish in his catch. Photo: Nancy Jacobs.

Dave is very familiar with the birds of North America. The forests there are thinner than here and birds congregate at open water. Here in Cameroon, the canopies are high and dense, the birds are strangers, and they move fast. So he photographs them as soon as he sees them and pauses to observe them only if they linger. “It’s a crazy way to bird,” he comments. He notes that his method is a lot like the ornithology of past times: shoot first and ask questions later. Of course, he uses a camera rather than a gun, but while he’s working he’ll exclaim, “Got ‘em!” in the manner of a hunter. Today, the sky is white, the forest is dark, and it is hard to get good photos. All the same, we identify 13 species, five of which are “lifers” for Dave—lifers are the first birds of their kind to be seen and listed by a birder in their lifetime. We are also pleased to observe some monkeys, but unfortunately, with no suitable guidebooks, have no way to identify them.

When it comes to defining what constitutes a sighting to birders and making a claim, Dave is pretty experienced. He is certain he has seen the blue-billed malimbe because Birds of Western Africa tells him that only one black bird with a white chest lives in this area, and he knows that the malimbe fits all the criteria in terms of size, habitat, and range. Romeo is conservative with his bird identifications and less easily convinced. He owns a different field guide and he has found it to be rather limited in its depictions of the birds that he catches in his net. Moreover, our uncertainty about the hornbill reinforces his impression about the difficulty of identification. So he remains more cautious about birds in the bush as opposed to birds in the hand. But Romeo recognizes the promise of visual identification for his work: “I run towards species richness,” he says. He plans to develop this skill and use it as another diagnostic for his research. If he is to practice this technique to his own standard, he will need binoculars and a camera with a telephoto lens.

When looking at the events of today and the past week, the story I am telling is about slow ornithology and fast birding, compounded by mobility and disposable income. Or could it be about the transmission of knowledge and practice across generations, continents, and consumption brackets? It is definitely about improvisation with categories. I’ve written it here as a demonstration in the politics of seeing; of what values are placed on things noted with the eyes. As with many of the things that white Americans connect to African travel, traditions of seeing birds are wrapped up in global structures of wealth and authoritative knowledge. Books are credited with authority, yet experience is vital in building confidence and new expertise. With international experience, equipment, and decades of practice, Dave was the authority among us, but Romeo brought his own experiences, talents, and skills. The fissure between the two birders was wide, but the interactions on that Saturday were local and collaborative. Our morning was rich with the delight of small things seen together for the first time.

Small things seen together for the first time.
Small things seen together for the first time. Photo: Nancy Jacobs.

Species list for the morning of 11 November 2017, near Komba-Tida, East Region, Cameroon. By David Jacobs and Romeo Omer Kamta Tchoffo. Dave’s lifers are marked with an asterisk.

African harrier hawk (Polyboroides typus)

Grey parrot (Psitticus erithacus)

Great blue turaco (Corythaeola cristata)

Little swift (Apus affinis)

Red-billed dwarf hornbill (Tockus camurus)*

African pied hornbill (Tockus fasciatus)

Black-casqued hornbill (Ceratogymna atrata)*

Lesser striped swallow (Cecropis abyssinica)

Collared sunbird (Anthodiata collaris)

Rufous-bellied helmetshrike (Prionops rufiventris)*

Western black-headed oriole (Oriolus brachyrhynchus)*

Blue-billed malimbe (Malimbus nitens)*

Black-and-white mannikin (Spermestes bicolor)

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