Grossmann: What Do the Birds Think?

3 October 2013

While observing western scrub jays in the wild, UC Davis researchers were surprised to witness what appeared to be a bird funeral.  When a dead jay was spotted on the ground, another jay immediately began shouting out alarm calls to the other members of the flock.  This seemed to make sense.  If the discovery of a dead bird was interpreted as danger, the first bird “on the scene” might call out an alarm to the rest of the flock to warn them that a jay-killing predator was in the area.

However, what happened next was puzzling.  Instead of fleeing, the first bird landed beside the dead bird’s body while continuing its call.  The rest of the birds joined the calling jay with the whole flock gathering until they formed a circle around the body of the dead jay.

This seemed odd.  If a dead bird meant a predator was in the area, you’d expect the rest of the flock to retreat.  Instead, the flock gathered at the very location of the possible attack.  Stranger still, the surviving jays stopped foraging for food for the rest of the day.  The observers had to ask: Is this a funeral?  Is fasting for the remainder of the day a kind of mourning?  It sort of looked that way.

The researchers were so intrigued that they experimented by placing other objects in the area of the flock to observe the reaction.  Colored pieces of wood were ignored.  A stuffed jay was mobbed receiving the same treatment as a competitor from another flock.  More interesting was the reaction to a stuffed Great Horn Owl, the jay’s chief predator.  With the sighting of the owl, the birds made alarm calls and the flock gathered together — just as they had for the “funeral.”  However, once gathered together, the group attacked the stuffed owl, more or less, swooping down on it repeatedly.

So, perhaps the gathering wasn’t a funeral, but massing for a possible attack.  It may be that jays don’t flee or hide from predators.  Rather they locate the threat, call their numbers together, and counterattack.  But, that still leaves one question unanswered.  After the flock found the dead jay, why did they stop eating for the rest of the day?

The researchers admit that they don’t know what this behavior means.  All they can say is that “the jays see the presence of a dead bird as information to be publicly shared, just as they do the presence of a predator.”

Whether you call it animal intelligence, thought, self-awareness, or consciousness, the question is:  How do you know if an animal has “it.”

Forgive me for saying that the philosophical approach to the question seems the least enlightening.  Frankly, whenever philosophers define animal consciousness, their definition requires the animal to have an advanced degree in philosophy to make the cut.  I’m joking — but only a little.

My first encounter with the formal theory of animal intelligence came after I unexpectedly came into possession of two guinea pigs.  When I read up on the animals, I was shocked to discover that experts agreed that a guinea pig could never learn to recognize its own name.  I was surprised because my pigs, apparently, did know their own names.  At least, when I said one of their names, that particular pig’s nose would immediately poke up into the air, and I would get a direct look.  The other pig — the one I hadn’t called by name — would go about its business without any response.

A few months later, at a social gathering, I had an opportunity to speak to a credentialed “expert” on the philosophical theories of animal intelligence. When I described my pigs’ behavior and their, apparent, ability to recognize their own names, my expert laughed, condescendingly, at my “understandable,” but “naïve,” assumptions.

He explained what was “really” happening.  Each pig had developed a sort of conditioned reflex specifically to the sound of its spoken name.  Based on repeated experiences, each animal came to associate a particular sound with certain events.  When I spoke a pig’s name, that animal had become conditioned to expect me to pick it up, pet it, feed it, remove it from its pen, etc.  Of course, if my tone was harsh, the animal had become conditioned to stop whatever it was doing and put its head down — out of sight.

I was confused by this explanation because, as far as I could tell, this expert had just described “name recognition,” human or animal, to a tee.  Sensing my confusion, my expert quickly disabused me of my false notion.  In order to understand one’s name, I was told, one had a to have the conceptual ability to understand, not only abstraction but, the process of abstracting.  In other words, the animal would have to understand that the sound of a particular word was an abstract formulation intended to represent the animal, itself, as it existed within, though distinct from, its environment.

He continued with his explanation for a while.  Then, excusing myself to get refreshments, I avoided him for the rest of the evening.

Inspired by this experience, I hope the reader will forgive me if I avoid any further philosophical discussion of animal intelligence, and take a more visceral approach to the question of what the birds might be thinking.

Let’s begin with the mirror test.  If you check out a pet shop, you’ll find that small mirrors are sold as amusement devices for caged birds.  I used to think that a mirror might fool a bird into thinking it had a companion.  This may work with some birds, but not with others.

What can a mirror tell us about self-awareness?  The test is surprisingly easy.  What would you do if you passed a mirror and saw a dark smudge on your face?  You’d wipe it off.  Well, researcher Gordon G. Gallup marked the skin, hair, or feathers of an animal with a mark that couldn’t be directly seen, at least, not without looking in a mirror.

Then, the animal is observed as it observes its own reflection in a mirror.  If the animal begins grooming behavior directed at the mark — tries to remove it — this means that the animal is aware of itself.  In other words, the animal knows it’s looking at itself in the mirror and recognizes the image as its own reflection, rather than, another animal.

Chimpanzees, orangutans, pygmy chimpanzees, and gorillas, dolphins, elephants and, among birds, magpies pass this test.  Magpies were chosen for study because researchers already suspected that these birds might be self-aware.  Their suspicions were based on the magpie’s lifestyle and apparent displays of empathetic behavior, which is thought to be a precursor to self-awareness.

The mirror test has come under criticism, not because it’s not rigorous enough, but because of its anthropocentric bias: over-emphasis on vision as a criterion for self-awareness.  So, if the mirror only tests animals with a sharp eye, what about animal speech.

Researchers have listened to the speech (and sounds) of young children and infants in their cribs hoping to learn their thoughts and levels of consciousness.  This method of study is being adapted for the study of animal speech.  Some researchers propose that by passively listening to an animal’s voluntary speech, it is possible to learn about its thoughts and determine whether the animal is conscious.  These studies have tended to focus on one species of bird, the loquacious Macaw.  However, I’ve heard no word on the progress made by those scientists attempting to learn the Macaw language.

Another proposed criterion of self- awareness is suffering.  However, there is no agreement on the answers to two basic questions.  What is suffering?  — and — Does suffering demonstrate consciousness?  Until researchers can agree on the answers, there’s no “yard stick” with which to measure results.

So, research based on “suffering” provides speculative conclusions.  Some scientists believe that even plants have consciousness.  One researcher draws the line between shrimp and oysters.  Apparently, shrimp know what’s going on, but oysters are permanently out of the consciousness loop. Another researcher has gone so far as to speak of “the inner life of cockroaches.”

Using suffering as a test for consciousness is a problem because suffering is easily confused with the more universal experience of pain, which can be experienced without self-awareness.

On the other hand, the over-estimation of animal self-awareness is, perhaps, a reaction against the “official truth” of the past.  Until recently, scientific opinion confirmed that all animals were biological robots thoughtlessly moving through their daily activities.

When we think of consciousness, let’s start with the “gold standard.”  We humans haven’t lost our place at the top.  The sheer extent of human consciousness is unparalleled in the rest of the animal kingdom.  Even if some animals are “more conscious” than we thought, none can hold a candle to human beings when it comes to consciousness.  So much so, that the degree of human self-awareness is one of the primary characteristics that differentiate our species from every other species on earth.

So, when looking for consciousness in animals, we would expect other anthropoids, chimps, orangutans, or gorillas, to be the likely candidates.  But, there are, also, several bird species registering at the high end on “the consciousness meter.”  And, the self-awareness of birds is as interesting as it is unexpected.  You’d have go back almost 300 million years to find a common ancestor of both mammals and birds.  And during the last 300 million years, mammals and birds have developed very different types of brains.

The mammalian neocortex was once thought to be the neurological structure that was absolutely necessary to consciousness.  However, birds don’t have a neocortex.  So, based on our current understanding of brain structure, birds shouldn’t be conscious at all.  However, our fine feathered friends go right on demonstrating high levels of consciousness.

Researcher Irene Pepperberg has worked with captive African Gray Parrots.  One of the birds, Alex, has scientifically demonstrated the ability to associate a few human words with meaning.  These birds have also demonstrated the ability to work intelligently with abstract concepts of shape, color, and number.

According to Pepperberg and others, African Gray Parrots compare favorably in the performance of cognitive tasks with dolphins, chimpanzees and, even, human toddlers.

Of course, those who spend a lot of time with animals, or even one animal, have known for centuries that animals possess a degree of conscious self-awareness.

In 2012, at the The Francis Crick Memorial Conference, in Cambridge England, a number of scientists presented evidence that lead to The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness confirming that “Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too.”

Dr. Marc Bekoff commented on the Declaration in an article most appropriately titled, “Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings.  Didn’t we already know this?  Yes, we did.”  I particularly appreciated the article’s reemphasis of the obvious with the comment, “It’s difficult to believe that those who have shared their homes with companion animals didn’t already know this.”

I’ve heard it said that Sir Isaac Newton “discovered” gravity — complete with the story of an apple falling down out of a tree.  However, Newton didn’t discover gravity.  Everyone already knew that objects fall down and not up.  Rather, Newton discovered a reliable scientific description of the laws of gravity.

Just as everyone knew about gravity before Newton, so most of us knew animals were conscious long before the Cambridge Declaration.  However, the Declaration is a landmark moment.  It affirms that the weight of formal scientific evidence has established that certain animals are conscious.

To most of us, the discussion of animal consciousness, self-awareness, and intelligence is both interesting and entertaining.  But the Cambridge Declaration isn’t just a decorative bow on top of a package of research findings.  The Declaration has potential ethical implications regarding the treatment of animals.  Specifically, the use and treatment of animals in scientific experimentation and animal husbandry must, now, be reviewed and evaluated in light of the scientific determination that certain animals are conscious.

But, even with the results of all this research, it’s still difficult to know exactly what’s going on in an animal’s head.  Some animals take notice of their dead.  Giraffes and elephants, for example, have been observed lingering near the body of a “recently deceased close relative.”  This suggests that animals may have a mental concept of death.  They may mourn the passing of those “close to them.”  But the question remains: What do the birds think?  Do jays hold funerals for their dead?




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