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The I of a Bird (or Welcome to Birding! Now Get Out!)

American KestrelAlexander Skutch completed his remarkable career with a cryptic work, The Minds of Birds. In this last effort Skutch forcefully argues for celebrating the intelligence of birds. This contentious book incorporates both his decades of observations and experiences as well as evidence from the research literature.

Now scientists have discovered that ravens, in some ways as intelligent as great apes, socialize with gestures. According to this recent study, “chimps gesture to each other, as well, pointing out particular spots where they’d like to be scratched or groomed. These symbolic gestures are believed to be an important precursor to language. Now, researchers have observed ravens using gestures in the wild—the only non-primates seen doing so…. The researchers saw ravens pick up stones, moss, and other non-edible items with their beaks, and display or offer those objects to another bird, usually of the opposite sex.”

Also comes word that John O’Neil and LSU researchers have described a new species of bird, the Varzea thrush. This neotropical thrush had been overlooked by researchers and birders because of its similarity to Hauxwell’s thrush. Like the new butterfly recently described from Florida, the thrush had been lurking underneath our noses.

The paper describing this new thrush also ends with a stirring defense of collecting. The authors state:

“We believe that critics of continued collecting, particularly of general collecting (e.g., Bekoff and Elzanowski 1997, Donegan 2000, 2008, American Bird Conservancy 2007), underestimate the importance of such collections in unraveling such complicated and intriguing stories such as that of T. sanchezorum, improving our understanding of the true biodiversity of our planet.”

The thrushes in question have no problem keeping themselves straight. At bird scale the differences are obvious. The birds know full well who they are, ornithologists or not. What is tested by these “complicated and intriguing stories” is human comprehension and understanding. As our friends at LSU point out, it is for “our understanding” that collecting is needed.

Northern CardinalI sincerely appreciate the admission that collecting is “for our understanding,” which is a nice way of saying “for our vanity.” This is an argument that I can buy. We consider ourselves to be the alpha species, and we are willing to sacrifice other “lesser” beings to augment “our understanding.”

I am using vanity not in the sense of empty or gratuitous conceit. I am thinking more of being prideful than vain. Pride compels discovery, research, and invention. In this sense vanity can be a positive force. I admit that the line between vanity and conceit is fine. Yet the fundamental need to leave a mark (even when that mark is wealth or power) underlies much of what man accomplishes.

For example, I believe that my writing is vanity. I believe that I have something to say of interest to people other than myself. There are writers that will argue that they write only for their personal pleasure, but I question these protestations. I am perfectly comfortable saying that my writing is a vanity.

I realize that there are those who consider scientific collecting to be beyond vanity, to be evil. Perhaps, but if collecting is an evil it is a necessary one. Compared to birds killed by windows, power lines, cats, pesticides, automobiles, and hunters, collecting is a blip on the screen. Modern collecting gains a wealth of data from each specimen, information that is frequently used in conservation and policy decisions (such as listing a species or subspecies in the ESA). All I wish for is an acknowledgment of the bird’s sacrifice, and recognition for the contribution of a sentient creature once more than a stuffed specimen belly up in a tray.

We can’t read their minds, these birds. We cannot know how the synapses are firing behind those watchful eyes. We cannot know their perspective of this world we share. But we can’t read the human mind, either. I have no clue as to what you are thinking. When I give a public presentation, I hope that my audience is at least sharing some of my salient points. But I admit that they could just as well be wondering how long will this old fool keep talking and where can I buy a beer.

We have our own ways to communicate- language, gestures, dress. But our communications with each other are edited and abbreviated. We do not and cannot reveal every iota of thought. We offer a clipped version that suits our purposes. We communicate only what we wish to, nothing more.

Think about how we recognize each other. We know who we are by facial structure and expression. We recognize a voice. You do not need field marks to recognize your family and your children. Consider that birds share this talent. As Skutch points out, individual birds can recognize each other and can remember human faces. We struggle to place certain birds within a species, never mind trying to recognize individuals. The Varzea thrush didn’t need a name or an ornithologist to know itself.

Birds appeared in the late Jurassic, between 150 and 200 million years ago. Humans are new to the scene, with anatomically modern humans appearing only 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. The evolution of man has been accompanied by birds every step of the way. No sentient human has lived absent birds. We have never seen a sky without them. We know birds, and they us.

Ancient Egyptian Bas-ReliefThen is it surprising that we sense birds in ways that are not always obvious or conscious? Although humans have been with birds for thousands of years, an ability to see them closely is a recent development. The first binocular telescope was invented by J. P. Lemiere in 1825. Did we not see birds before? Did we not sense their presence, give them names, and capture their beauty? I know; Audubon and others shot the birds they painted. But what about those millennia before the invention of the gun? The Egyptians portrayed many of their gods as birds. I wonder what they sensed then that we do not now.

I remember a research paper (or book; I forget) by Jared Diamond about a forest tribe in Papua New Guinea that could name all of the birds of the forest but had no words for sky. Could it be that our native perceptiveness has been dulled by modernity like these natives’ perceptions were limited by the forest canopy? We are oblivious to the night sky because so few can see it through the incandescent glare. Isn’t our hearing dulled by the unrelenting noise of the city, our sight clouded by the garishness of city life? The Greeks would not have named the constellations if consigned to a modern city. Doesn’t this speak to a sensory potential that is occluded by modern life?

Yes, I believe that birds sense our presence and we theirs. I also believe that these senses need exercise just as much as the muscle groups. Once we stretched our sensory capabilities, like birds, by merely existing. Now we must reach beyond the background sensory overload. I believe this is why wild areas, public lands, are so critical. These are places where we recalibrate our senses and reconnect with life as defined at our beginning. These are places where we peer into our past and see what the first human must have seen, hear what the first human must have heard.

Buff-bellied HummingbirdEdward Abbey said “that which today calls itself science gives us more and more information, and indigestible glut of information, and less and less understanding.” Are we awash in information, drowning in a media overload that dulls sight and mind? Are we down for the count?

Get out.

Get away. Drag the kids to the car and rush to the nearest open space. Clear your senses. Watch nature. Watch birds. Watch closely. Birding is for your sanity, for your health. I know; we like to pretend that birding is a science (we call ourselves field ornithologists). I know; birding is a competitive sport and a rapidly expanding recreation. Forget all of this. Birding feeds the brain. Birding exercises the senses. Birding reveals the world as is, not as marketed.

Marshall McLuhan said that “all media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values” I believe that the raw, unadorned outdoor experience strips you of this artificiality by isolating you from the media madness and fakery that is our modern life.

Is there a more persuasive argument for birding? Is there a more compelling argument for the conservation of wild lands? I am willing to forgo existence value for a moment. Why don’t we play to man’s vanity and argue that birding and conservation are for the benefit of humankind?

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