Birds and Language Conference – School of Literature, Art and Media Birds and Language Conference – School of Literature, Art and Media

Birds and Language Conference

Presented by the School of Literature, Art and Media, the University of Sydney, in partnership with the Sydney Environment Institute 

The sounds birds make form structured series, comprised of complex syntaxes, nuanced in tone, precise, sometimes excessive, often regarded as being of compelling aesthetic value. We do not hesitate to refer to many of these sounds as songs, or, more prosaically, calls. We move, easily, too, towards thinking about these sounds as a species of language.

More, we readily speak of the visual rhetorics of birds: ideas of performativity, display, mimesis and deception. We sometimes dare to think of birds as artists—not only singers, but bricoleurs, assembling extravagant, colour-coded nests, as in the case of the bowerbird. More, recently, we have become more comfortable with thinking of some birds as capable of higher-order reason, as experiments with crows demonstrate capacities to think through and to solve complex physical problems.

This conference poses a simple question:

What is it to talk of birds and language?

How might such a question provide the impetus and grounds for an interdisciplinary encounter between the natural sciences, the humanities, and the creative arts?

We invite responses to these simple provocations:

Points for consideration may include but are not limited to the following:

  • Anthropological zoosemiotics: how do birds and humans communicate with each other? What might we learn from such exchanges?
  • questions of ethological zoosemiotics (animal behaviour)
  • speculative approaches to understanding and presenting the colours and forms found on birds as a form of encoded knowledge;
  • synchronous and sequential temporalities between birds and non-birds;
  • understandings of systems that stress interdependence, and which model processes of interspecial sympoiesis;
  • what is it like to be a bird? How has this question been taken up in aesthetic practices?
  • avian aesthetics: how are our phenomenological experiences of birds in tension with the languages of empiricism?
  • ‘bird design’ as ‘word-pictures’ and their sign systems;
  • the semantics of birdsong: birdsong and parallels to human and non-human language;
  • birds and pattern-making (lyrebirds, bowerbirds, magpies, crows, etc.);
  • birds as configuring human desire for war and peace;
  • birds as ambassadors for a geopolitics of sensing and knowing;
  • escaping the Anthropocene: how a critical aesthetic of birds may open a space for restorative reflection

We are inviting submissions of:

  • scholarly presentations of up to 20 minutes;
  • creative essays incorporating images, sound, poetry, short fictional prose of up to 2000 words;
  • themes for panel discussions and workshops;
  • artworks and performances; and
  • animations incorporating a contextualising statement of up to 1000 words (up to 10 minutes).

Proposals are due by midnight, Friday 28 May 2021. Upload applications here:

Please contact Madeleine Kelly ( or Ian Maxwell ( with any queries or to discuss proposed contributions.



Aug 19 - 20 2021


RD Watt Building (A04)
University of Sydney, Science Road, Camperdown, NSW 2006

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