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    The Ornithologist

    Nick Sowers
    May 28, '10 9:29 PM EST

    The following report is an abridged version of "Ornithology and Camouflage: A shroud of Swiftlet-space" to be presented at the Conference Echo Red: Military Archaeologies and Architectural Trajectories on 31 May.

    A Shroud of Swiftlet-Space

    Guam is an exciting place to study birds due to the varied habitats in which you may find them, from cliff-top roosts to subterranean nests. My particular interest is studying bird life that is found in or depends upon the presence of caves. This work is more aptly described as chiroptology——the study of bats. My particular area of study is the Aerodramus vanikorensis, known as yayaguak in the native Chamorro language, or commonly referred to as the Island Swiftlet.

    image [Fig. 5-1, 5-2: The Island Swiftlet, once nearly extinct on Guam and now thriving in the former military bases, and the F-35, a noisy bird extirpated from Guam in 2038]

    The most remarkable characteristic of this species of bird is that it navigates with the same sonic mechanism of bats——echolocation——yet the sound is audible, unlike most bat sonar. Furthermore, the nests produced by this bird can be farmed. The multi-million dollar Swiftlet farming industry which repurposes abandoned buildings in Malaysia to harvest the edible nests produced by the bird's saliva could also take root in the abandoned hollows of the jet noise barrier. A productive ecology such as this (though Swiftlet nests are a rare delicacy) would be ideal for Guam, which still depends heavily on imported foods such as Spam.

    image[Fig. 5-3: The Swiftlet nest is produced by the bird's saliva and prized in haute-cuisine.]

    image[Fig. 5-4: A century after its introduction, still loved across the Pacific.]

    Study Areas and Field Methods

    Over the past decade I have surveyed the limestone forest bird communities of Guam at three principle sites. The Park Service has asked me to provide a more detailed analysis of one of these three sites, the section of the jet noise barrier known as Echo Red. At this section we have detected 11 species of birds among 117 mist net captures, 22 point detections, and 387 total observations.

    [Fig. 5-5, Ant nest plaster cast via | via]

    [Fig. 5-6, Swiftlet cave sonic casting]

    To understand how precisely the bird is making decisions and finding ideal habitat, I have used a form of sonar-tracking and established digital castings of their habitat. We produced several 'sonic casts' not unlike the plaster casts that a myrmecologist uses to study ant habitat. As the swiftlet perceives solid surfaces by sonar, so too did we navigate the deepest tunnels with a military surplus drone buggy and sonar equipment. Swiftlet habitat density was measured by the detection of nests. This tunnel network combines both subterranean phreatic chambers as described by the geologist and the military's vacated hangars mentioned by the landscape preservationist.

    Habitat Assessment

    Although I began tracking avifauna on Guam five years after the departure of the military, it is estimated that bird habitat has increased by 800% since the last F-35 took flight from Andersen Air Force Base. [see Fig. 5-2] What is remarkable, however, is that the resurgence of this bird population depended on the military presence. To understand the nature of the Swiftlet habitat we must consider how and why they were constructed in the first place.

    Military development is inextricably linked to the harboring of ecologies. Attention was brought earlier this century to the unmatched resource of the 240-km-long Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separated North and South Korea. It is one of the longest uninterrupted wildlife corridors in Asia. Tourists visiting observation centers in South Korea could learn about efforts to preserve this interstitial zone in anticipation of a reunification. The DMZ was only demilitarized in the diplomatic sense of the word; the zone was heavily mined and charged with the tension of imminent conflict. Adjacent US-South Korean bases filled the air with the sounds of training on a daily basis. Land mines provided “the greatest threat to animals in the region, especially larger mammals like the mule deer.” 1 To truly develop this landscape as an ecological habitat would take some significant effort following an actual demilitarization. While ecologies are permitted to thrive in large militarized zones such as the DMZ, the ecosystem should not be confused with an image of pristine habitat.

    The deception of protecting an ecosystem was critical to the military’s prolonged presence on Guam. The jet noise barrier depended on a shroud of bird habitat to maintain its presence. The berm effectively doubled the landscape at the base border with the plan that local citizens could then reclaim the land for development. On this doubled ground the native limestone forest thrived on the concrete-limestone composite.

    image [Fig. 5-7: A section through the jet noise barrier showing locations of Swiftlet cave sections]

    The bird habitat in general, and swiftlet habitat in particular, was initially created by the birds finding ideal locations within the jet-noise barrier and later intentionally produced by the military studying and learning from the propensities of the birds to generate new habitat. These modifications follow a history of the military tampering with the ecosystem. Guam was occupied by the Japanese during WWII; the battle to reclaim this island rendered large swaths of its landscape barren and susceptible to erosion. The US military tree-bombed the island, dropping seeds of a non-native, rapidly growing tree called the tangan tangan from B-52 bombers. The trees, native to tropical Latin America and first brought over by the colonizing Spaniards, forever altered the physical makeup of the island as they grew explosively.
    While not intentionally wrought by the military, another post-WWII tampering of the ecosystem came by way of the brown tree snake, likely a stowaway on a cargo ship post-WWII. Bird population was dramatically reduced as a result of this introduced predator, leading to the extirpation of nine of eleven endemic species. This loss of bird diversity left a scar on Guam that would become a playing card in the military’s hand as they fought groups protesting a host of detrimental social factors of the military’s presence. To understand the nature of this practice of the military producing habitat, I will briefly discuss camouflage.

    image[Fig. 5-8: Dazzle ships produced a shroud of confusion in the range-finder as to the speed and direction of a sighted enemy ship]

    Camouflage as Thickened Veneer

    The painting of ships known as Dazzle Ships bordered on an art form in the first World War. Great Britain actually contracted artists to come up with concepts of camouflage. 2 It wasn’t until WWII that camouflage gave birth to a new ecological practice. Due to the advancement and widespread use of aerial reconnaissance, camouflage depended upon a holistic concept of site. Major Robert P. Breckenridge writes in Modern Camouflage that “the less the interference with the pattern and features of the ground, the better will be the results.” 3 Breckenridge adds that “during construction ground scars should be as limited as possible, and should be confined to the areas of actual construction work.”4 Military development, then, driven by the need to be hidden from view, had to work with what was available, rather than project an artificial order upon the site. The appendix of Breckenridge’s study includes a listing of native tree species and precise qualities regarding density of foliage, growth heights, etc. The military engineer becomes a botanist by strategic necessity.

    Militarized Ecologies

    Turning our attention to US bases at the beginning of this century, the greatest threat to their longevity was not enemy attack but the unabated development of the neighboring communities. The military term for this is ‘encroachment’ defined in the Center for Public Environmental Oversight (CPEO) report as “the real or perceived conflict between the military training mission and the physical environment of habitat, species, people and communities.” 5 The issue of encroachment moved to the fore of military concern in base planning, prompting a report by the RAND corporation in 2007 titled The Thin Green Line. The conclusion of the report is that “military departments [must] partner with state and local governments or private nonprofit organizations to establish buffer areas.” 6 A “buffer area” is also a performative camouflage; it is a constructed, artificial ecology.

    The camouflage engineer is now invested in more than the imagery of a landscape. Its lifecycle must be considered. The artificial ecology cannot be designed in a single gesture. The architecture office MVRDV understood this perfectly well, that a design on such a large scale which impacts ecologies must be rigorously tested with end-game scenarios. As such, the camouflaged buffer zone, once delineated, can be "projected into the future and allowed to grow in over time." 7

    In Stuttgart, Germany, abandoned US Army housing had become swallow habitat, a stop along the migratory route from Africa to Northern Europe. When the Army decided that it needed to re-purpose the old barracks, the local government would not let them renovate the buildings without considering the needs of the migrating swallows. 8 As a result, the military designed over-sized eaves for the remodeled barracks to accommodate swallow habitat while allowing the buildings to be re-occupied. It is clear that ecological considerations are impacting the design of military bases, working in the military’s favor in some cases.

    Conservation and Management Recommendations

    The military aided in the production of bird habitat. Yet the amplified presence of birds is what ultimately drove the military off the island. Protests by bird-activists and a series of studies depicting the harmful effects of jet noise on bird life sealed the eviction letter. Understanding this history is important to the future management of the bird habitat. The Swiftlet will continue to discover and produce nests in the abandoned hollows of the jet noise barrier. It may be that military bases around the world can be built with the Swiftlet's ecological preferences in mind as a fulfillment of the pending UN charter's requirement to build into military bases a mechanism for their demilitarization.

    1Hance, Jeremy. "Korean demilitarized zone has become pristine wildlife habitat"
    2The "Dazzle Ships" were developed by the artist Norman Wilkinson
    3Breckenridge, Robert P. Modern Camouflage: The New Science of Protective Concealment. New York, Toronto: Farrar & Rinehart, 1942.
    5"Who is Encroaching Upon Who?" Center for Public Environmental Oversight
    6Lachman, Beth E.; Wong, Anny; Resetar, Susan A. The Thin Green Line. p.1
    7 Allen, Stan. "Artificial Ecologies." p. 87
    8Information learned while visiting a former housing area and discussing its past with the Public Affairs Officer in Stuttgart, Germany.


    • mantaray

      First question, before I can digest the remainder of this intriguing entry:
      so, what do swiftlet nests taste like?

      May 30, 10 2:48 pm  · 

      Thank you for your question Mantaray. I will defer to the culinary knowledge offered my colleague Ms. Chan a.k.a. dreamweaverwolf:

      "Only those species whose nests are 'white' and made purely or almost purely of saliva are the most prized. The nests are harvested from cave walls. When cooked, the birds' nests have a gelatinous texture. In Chinese cuisine, high medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities are ascribed to these nests. Scientific investigations reveal these nests to be high in protein with about 7% lime. Many consumers of bird nest soup report significant improvement in appetite. However, some others noticed excessive secretion of gastric acid that may cause acid reflux symptoms."

      In other words, solidified bird spit is clearly not always easy to digest.

      May 30, 10 9:46 pm  · 

      Wonderful paper. I especially like the sound casting as contrasted with ant hill casting and how you were able to throw in Dazzle ships!

      Is there a way to read the whole paper?



      Jun 5, 10 6:15 pm  · 

      send me an email-- soundscrapers_at_gmail_dot_com

      The reports are being collected, edited, and prepared for potential publication, but I am happy to share the research when it's ready.

      Jun 5, 10 7:10 pm  · 

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