Birds were here first

Having had my heart stolen by a cockatoo (yesterday’s story), I was delighted to discover the YouTube star Snowball, who made his debut a couple of years ago dancing to the Backstreet Boys:

Snowball made a splash because we don’t expect birds to keep time to music. Some people even believe they’re not capable of it, which is why a neuroscientist performed experiments to see if Snowball really was feeling the beat. Turns out, he was. Dr. Aniruddh D. Patel and associates wrote up their findings in an article soon to be published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. (Update: The article can be found here.)

That we enjoy music along with birds should provoke little surprise. Ian Cross, a UK professor of music and science at Cambridge, sees music as a social activity, dependent on complex social interactions.

Snowball apparently agrees. When Dr. Patel visited him at his home in Indiana, they tried dancing together. Patel reports,

At some point, I turned my back on him just to see if he cared if we had some kind of eye contact. His owner told me he kind of stopped and looked a little puzzled like, “What’s going on?”

In a recent Common Ground essay, writer Geoff Olson points out that Snowball’s dancing ability rests on skills that humans and birds share: vocalizing and imitating sounds. Olson says,

Perhaps we have more in common with the avian world than we think.

A number of years ago when the film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill came out, I was enchanted with how Mark Bittner befriended the wild parrot flock in San Francisco. By observing them closely over a long period of time, he saw in the wild parrots all the reactions and feelings that humans who live with birds see in their pets. Not surprising (at least to animal lovers), to Mark the parrots looked like us–in all their noisy, squabbling, raucous, tender relations.

The filmmaker, Judy Irving, says:

[The birds] experience fear, jealousy and joy; they are curious, funny and wacky. They have full individual lives and a rich flock culture: flying together as a team, then squabbling as soon as they land. In many ways they reflect human society. . . .

But dancing is one thing, and emotions are another, and Bittner and Irving are in the minority of people who talk freely of bird emotions. There is a taboo against “attributing” emotions to birds, born of Descartes’s misguided notion that humans are the only ones with feelings. So many people have absorbed this idea that those who defy the taboo get clucked at for being anthropomorphic.

One animal scientist I know of, ethologist Frans de Waal, says the taboo against seeing emotions in other creatures is so strong that he calls it anthropodenial:

a blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves.

Filmmaker Judy Irving, along the same lines, adds:

To speak of these shared qualities is not, as some would assert, “anthropomorphism.” Better to describe human behavior as avianomorphism—after all, birds were here first, by millions of years. Maybe we picked up our personality traits from them! Birds were fully evolved by the time we stood upright.

Avianomorphism–I like that. We’re following the birds in music and dance. Why not emotions too? Birds, after all, were here first.

For a thoughtful take on emotions in animals, see Frans de Waal’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.


2 Responses to Birds were here first

  1. Rosemary Carstens says:April 4, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    What a fun and informative post. I really enjoyed it and learned that, as I have always suspected, all living critters have the capacity to feel.

  2. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:April 4, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    Thanks, Rosemary. Isn’t it funny how easily we all get persuaded out of that way of viewing critters once we get to be adults? I’m glad people are beginning to recognize how outmoded the taboo against seeing feelings in other animals actually is.