Are birds like humans?
As we learn about our feathered friends, their feats of language, memory and even artistic appreciation raise questions about how different we really are.
At the end of each day, as Irene Pepperberg placed her parrot Alex back into his cage, he would bid her goodnight: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”
Pepperberg was a scientist and Alex was her star subject. Over the course of 27 years, the African grey parrot built a vocabulary of hundreds of words. He could count and add. He had favourite colours, strong opinions and even an understanding of abstract concepts.
Alex’s feats transformed our understanding of birds. “Bird brained” has long been an insult, but now scientists are uncovering more evidence of their mental abilities.
This realisation is the inspiration for a new book. Tim Flach’s Birds is a series of portraits capturing avian species in human-like poses. They preen like models, flashing their plumage or staring into the camera.
Flach’s approach is anthropomorphic. This is something that naturalists are often wary of, especially in animals as evolutionarily distant as birds. But despite their different anatomy and heritage, birds exhibit behaviours that seem to indicate minds not unlike ours.
Crows can solve puzzles. Magpies, also from the corvid family, can recognise themselves in a mirror. Chickadees communicate about predators, while some birds pass down language or behaviour from one generation to the next. Pigeons can be trained to distinguish a Monet from a Picasso. Long-tailed tits build nests using around 6,000 pieces.
By human standards of intelligence, says ornithologist Jennifer Ackerman, these animals are “closer to primates than to their own reptilian ancestors”.
In other areas birds’ abilities surpass ours. A clark’s nutcracker can stash seeds in 5,000 caches and relocate them all. Some species can navigate distances of thousands of miles.
Birds don’t just show calculation, but also social and aesthetic senses. Parrots are the only animals besides humans and elephants that can dance to a beat. Bowerbirds curate sculptures made of leaves, bones and trash to attract mates. Chickens have extremely precise social hierarchies: the proverbial “pecking order”.
Are birds like humans?
Yes. Tim Flach thinks making birds seem human creates empathy, which draws us into closer understanding and greater care. Many agree: once we recognise how much we share with these creatures, they say, we will see how much we should value them in their diversity.
No. To treat birds like humans misses the point: the reason why birds are so fascinating is that they give us a glimpse into minds fundamentally different to our own. We should recognise that their intelligence is alien – and all the more miraculous.
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