Lightning Birds: An Aeroecology of the Airwaves

by Jacob Smith, University of Michigan Press, 2021.
Open access, mixed media, ISBN: 978-0-472-99905-7

Trusted Eye: Post-World War II Adventures of a Fearless Art Advocate by Claudia Fontaine ChidesterJacob Smith’s Lightning Birds: An Aeroecology of the Airwavesis an accessible work about an esoteric topic—the “aerosphere” as a contact point between birds and radio broadcasts. Smith traces an overlapping history of ornithology and radio, transforming a whimsical observation about the sky into a persuasive and often entertaining case for thinking about mediatechnologies ecologically, in relation to animals and earthly processes.

Smith’s work draws on Jussi Parikka’s influential book A Geology of Media (2015),which considers the material strata and deep time of media, while alsoofferingan aerial counterpoint to Melody Jue’s Wild Blue Media(2020), which looks at the ocean as a media environment. Each of these works makes strides in linking media studies and ecocriticism. What distinguishes Lightning Birdsis its format: Rather than a traditional monograph, Smith has produced a five-episode podcast, along with an introductory essay described as “liner notes.” It’s a smart pairing of form and content—a riff on the radio play—anditlargely succeeds in presenting scholarly ideas for a broader audience. As a result of this work, Smith was recently named winner of the 2022 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Anne Friedberg Innovative Scholarship Award.

The project’s title comes from Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov’s 1921 essay “The Radio of the Future,” which glorifies emerging radio technology and describes radio waves as a “stream of lightning birds”(5). Smith departs from this metaphorical usageto document the material connections between birds and radio, as well as to explore the rich imaginative space of the sky, where birds often serve as inspiration for human ambitions.He defines radio loosely as “an assemblage of technological devices, along with the protocols for using them”(1).His aim is to recontextualize this assemblage of towers and transmissions and social practices “as it intersects with the aerospheric environment” (3).  

Given the potential sprawl of the subject matter—bird migration, radio infrastructures, citizen science, species extinction—Smith relies on a range of storytelling and production techniques to maintain focus. Khlebnikov’s essay servesas a framing deviceacross the series, as does Paul Gallico’s 1941novellaThe Snow Goose,a wartime parable about love, distance, and, as Smith suggests, interspecies kinship. Smith also employs afamiliar podcaster’stoolkit of sound effects, music, and archival audio to evoke the dynamic space of the aerosphere. Part of the fun of this project is the mix of scholarly expertise and homespun ingenuity; you can almost picture Smith perfecting his NPR voice and tinkering with samples on GarageBand. Yetthe project also responds gracefully to a twofold problem in the environmental humanities—how to manage topics that encompass so much,and how to convey urgentyetcomplexinformation to academic and non-academic audiences alike.

Each episode has a thematic focus. Episode one, “Station,” draws a parallel between the practice of “bird banding”—the earliest technique for studying bird migration, where participants attach a marker around a bird’s leg—and amateur radio networks emerging in the 1920s. Smith links the emphasis on distance and hobbyism to Raymond Williams’s concept of “mobile privatization,” where an increasingly privatized, stationarypopulation turned to technology for a sense of the larger world. Here, Smith explores the central role of aluminum in both processes, as a durable material for the bird bands and as a key component in radio devices and infrastructure. Aluminum becomes another focal point in the series, an elemental anchor, as Smith highlights its centralityto skyward technologies like aviation and radio as well as its notorious environmental costs—a light, durable material with a massive carbon footprint.

Episode two, “Tower,” looks at “towerkill,”a phenomenon where birds crash into tall structures that began with lighthouses and,with the proliferation of radio towers,has led to an estimated 6.6 million bird deaths per year. While experts put the blame on tower lights, which ostensibly interfere with navigation, the precise causes are unknown. The episode features an engaging interview with biologist Joelle Gehring, who determined that flashing lights are far less harmful than steady burning lights and can reducecollisionrates by 70 percent.Her research initiated a shift in FAA policy for new towers, and her story illustrates the optimistic sense throughout Lightning Birds that good science and good storytelling can lead to social change.

The remaining episodesfocus on specific technologies. Episode three, “Waves,” looks at radar, a system with military origins during World War II that has birthedthe field of radar ornithology. Through radar, scientists were able to study avian flight pathsin new ways, and one takeaway isthat some birds use the Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves—what Smith calls “a kind of ‘natural radio’” (9).Episode four, “Microphones,” examines recording devices that capture the flight calls of migratory birds. Smith shows how developing technologies have afforded new means of understanding bird behavior, and he concludes with a fascinating bit about birds that navigate using the infrasonic frequencies of ocean waves.

The final episode, “Amplifier,” focuses on the development of transistors, which made radios smaller and more portable,thusfacilitatingradio telemetry, a method for precisely tracking bird pathways usingtiny transmittersand mobile receivers. Smith explores the uses of this technology and engages critiques that it abstractswildbirds as sonic data. He concludes with a close reading of The Snow Goose,a story that reads differently through the multispecies lens of Lightning Birds.

The major draw back of this illuminating project is its political purview. In emphasizing the granular details ofradio and ornithology, it sometimes sidesteps the fraught aspects of technologies that have their roots in the military and have contributed to a culture of surveillance and dynamics of geopolitical power. The sky is not merely a contact zone;it is also a highly politicized space where issues of mobility, territory, and defense intersect with a broader aeroecology. Bird migration offers an ideal figure for thinking about ecology in a transnational context, but in Smith’s work this remains more of an atmospheric concern. Smith at times gestures to political implications and does an admirable job of moving the story along; these underexplored currents, then, suggest a tradeoff for accessibility—the podcast,after all,tends to be a breezy genre.

Still, Lightning Birds should be celebrated for several reasons: It is an open-access resource, an adventurous experiment in scholarly form, and a genuinely compelling narrative built from rather niche parts. It would no doubt appeal to media scholars and ecocritics and will likely inspire other academics seeking new formats for their research. It might also makea good soundtrack for a road trip (or flight).

Nick Earhart, University of Southern California