Nick Russo weighs a black-casqued hornbill in the Dja Reserve in Cameroon while guide Luc Mbembo waits to assist with tagging the bird.

A Harness For a Hornbill

Nick Russo is wearing one sock and holding a small dinosaur. For a few moments it is settled in his arms, wings held tightly against its body, and then it erupts with a squawk-squeal-scream that hurts my ears and makes me think of Laura Dern.

Nick is an ornithologist and the dinosaur is his study bird, the black-casqued hornbill. We’re in a research camp in the Dja Faunal Reserve, a five thousand square kilometre stretch of forest in South-Eastern Cameroon, set up as a safe space for gorillas and forest elephants but home also to an astoundingly diverse list of birds. Nick has spent the last three months here stringing up huge mist nets every morning in between tall hardwood trees and waiting for the right bird to fly into them. It’s his second to last day in the field, and this hornbill is the fifth and last one he’ll catch on this trip.

A crowd gathers around Russo as he gets to work disentangling the bird from the net. First Nick’s group of Baka guides arrive and then everyone else at the camp does too: the cooks and the eco guards and the five-person team I’ve come out to the forest with for another less bird-y project. We all crane in to get a better view of the hornbill as it comes noisily free from the net and is carried to a dried mud clearing in front of the camp buildings.

It’s a strange bird. It has an enormous bill, the length and width of a toucan’s but curved down into a point instead of straight. The whole dull, drab keratin-grey bill is covered in deep gouges and scratches, as if its carver had dropped their tools mid-way through. And then, on top of this rough-hewn bill is a whole other even less-finished thing: the horn in ‘hornbill’. In some species the horn is upturned and pointed and colourful and ornate but in the black-casqued it is difficult to describe with any other word than ‘lump’. It’s the size of a zucchini. Behind this ‘horn’ is a shiny chestnut-coloured eye set into a circle of light blue, wrinkled skin. And then all of this, the horn and the bill and the blue and the eye, are framed with a mess of long, thin, and very unkempt black feathers, tufting out in all directions. It’s like a prototype from some early-career Jim Henson project.

Nick pulls a black sock with the toe cut out over the bird’s bill/horn conglomeration and then up over its head. The sock serves two purposes: it keeps the bill closed so that Russo’s fingers won’t get nipped as he works, and it covers the bird’s eye so that it isn’t distracted by all of the activity around it. The idea is that, in darkness, the bird will settle down.

It squawk-squeal-screams again.

What follows is part field surgery, part fashion show fitting. A tackle box appears, and from out of it come big hooked suturing needles and thin black thread. There’s no store to go to for black-casqued hornbill satellite tag harnesses, so Nick has made one by hand out of soft leather. The sizing is tricky: the harness has to fit snugly enough not to be easily removed by the bird, but it has to be loose enough to accommodate for weight gain during fruiting season in the forest. There’s a fair variation in size between hornbill individuals, so each harness is tailored on the spot, cut and sewn to fit the bird in hand.

Attached to the newly-fitted harness is a little black block about the size of a lego brick, with a thin metal antenna. This device — a tracker built by the Icarus Initiative — will charge itself in the sun and then it’ll talk to a receiver installed on the Russian side of the International Space Station, reporting its position with a resolution of about ten metres.

A tiny Icarus tracker is positioned on the hornbill’s back before the harness is fitted. Photo by Peter Houlihan.

Back home in Massachusetts, Russo will spend the winter knowing the life of this bird in snapshots, will follow it through pinged records of latitude and longitude and altitude and time. His hope is that the movement patterns of this hornbill and others will add to the understanding of how trees are propagated across the forest by birds like these: how, in a very real way they are shaping the future of the forest by dispersing seeds. A better understanding of this ‘birds as forest builder’ phenomenon might guide future conservation plans, centered on fruit-eating birds like the hornbills.

The Icarus Initiative is the sort of ambitiously-named moonshot project that you might from expect Elon Musk if he had a conscience. Conceived in 2002, Icarus is trying to solve one of the big problems involved in studying the ways animals move: in order to have the power to communicate with satellites, conventional wildlife trackers need to be biggish (most of them weigh about 35 grams, the same as a 9 volt battery). Because of this, standard satellite tracking really only works well for biggish animals, and so we have a lot of data recoding the exact movements of eagles and vultures, but very little from warblers and kinglets.

The Icarus trick was to solve the satellite problem not by putting more power into trackers but by reducing the distance that their signals need to travel. Conventional satellites used for tracking orbit 850km from earth, which is a pretty long way to throw a signal. The International Space Station on the other hand, is just 320km away. Because of the way radio waves propagate, it takes 1/7th of the power to send a signal to the ISS as it does to the usual satellites. Less power means smaller batteries, and much lighter devices. The current Icarus trackers weigh just 5 grams, and there are apparently plans in the works to bring the size down to 1 gram: light enough to attach to a dragonfly or a honeybee. Even on a big bird like the hornbill, the Icarus trackers are a boon because they’re less of a burden the animal, and because their batteries might conceivably last for years (because the batteries are so small they can be charged by tiny solar panels affixed to the devices).

The long-term goal of the Icarus Initiative is to get these trackers on thousands of animals, creating what they refer to (apparently with a straight face) as ‘the internet of animals’. Dr. Martin Wikelski, who leads the project, imagines a future where people might follow individual animals as they do celebrities on social media. He also believes, that with enough birds and mammals and insects tagged, data from his animal internet could offer early warnings for humans of pandemics, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. “The animals,” Icarus foretells, “will thus be our sensors with which we will feel the pulse of the Earth”.

It’s worth sitting for a moment with the word our. Does affixing a sensor to the back of a bird somehow make it our agent? And of course the possessive requires a possessor: is it Wikelski’s team? Scientists as a whole? Or all of humanity? Principles of Indigenous Data Sovereignty state plainly that indigenous people have inherent and inalienable rights to data recorded on or about their ancestral territories. Yet no mention at all is made on the Icarus Initiative’s site of the word ‘indigenous’.

With tracking projects like Icarus, the gaze of big data is widening to include animals. Humans and hippos and hummingbirds alike will be incessantly classified and categorized, statisti-fied, sold and surveilled. Discussions about ethics and fairness and sovereignty, risk and harm and governance, need to be broadened to include all of the non-human citizens of data. Research institutions built to study the impacts of AI and Machine Learning on human society should expand their agendas to include animal populations as well. “Conservation Tech” is being deployed at scale and with speed and needs the attention of many critical eyes.

A half hour after it was untangled from the net, after its been weighed and fitted with a baby blue leg band, Nick lets the hornbill go and it launches into the sky with a whoof whoof whoof of wingbeats. I watch it flap up over the top of the trees and then it is gone.

There’s a moment from the whole process I think about later as I’m laying in my tent in the dark, listening to the rain: it’s when Nick bends over to wet a thread with his mouth so that he can fit it through the eye of a needle. For a few seconds, his face is right next to the hornbill’s breast. The gesture is tender and domestic and humane. It’s an instant that’s filled with care. It won’t be recorded in a dataset or sent into an internet of animals or published in a paper but in it is the kernel of the work that Nick has been doing, those eighty-six up-before-the-sun mornings for five tagged hornbills, the why of science right alongside the how.

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Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.

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Jer Thorp

Jer Thorp

Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.

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