Several recent studies have observed that certain birds (corvids and parrots) have developed a number of cognitive instruments comparable to those of certain primates and other large mammals.
Although culturally many winged animals have been classified as “intelligent” and “purposeful” beings by the general population since ancient times, the truth is that humans are more fascinated by what resembles them most., And for that Reasonably, most experiments in ethology and animal behavior are concerned have been directed towards large primates in captivity.
This leaves a very difficult question unanswered: Do birds have self-awareness? From a completely empirical point of view and with a critical eye, we will try to interpret what we know on this subject.
Do birds have self-awareness? The humanization dilemma
Ethology is the branch of biology and experimental psychology that studies the behavior of animals, either in a state of freedom or in laboratory conditions. This scientific discipline is a double-edged sword, because the interpretation of empirical results certainly depends, to a large extent, on the person observing them.
that’s why humans have repeatedly been accused of “humanizing” animals. When we see a viral video of a cat massaging the corpse of another feline that has been run over, is it trying to resuscitate it, or is it just settling on a hairy surface that is still warm? ? Although it sounds cruel, in many cases the evolutionary mechanisms do not include empathy and understanding.
For this reason, and since we are operating on a “glass” surface of knowledge, we must limit the term consciousness itself before continuing.
According to the Royal Spanish Academy of Language, one of the most appropriate meanings of the term would be “a mental activity of the subject himself that allows him to feel present in the world and in reality”, or what is the even, the individual’s ability to perceive external objects and to differentiate them from events resulting from their internal functioning.
This complex term encompasses other ideas, as there are other psychological events that are sometimes used synonymously or related. Here are some examples:
- Environmental awareness (the ability to perceive objects, events and sensory patterns). In biology, it is the cognitive response to an event.
- Self-knowledge: the ability of an individual to separate from the environment and other living things, as well as the ability to introspect.
- Self-awareness: an acute type of self-knowledge, where concern and reflection for the individual state arise.
- Synthesis: the ability to perceive or experience situations or events subjectively.
- Wisdom: the ability of an organism to act with proper judgment, characteristic of an intelligent individual.
- Qualia: the subjective qualities of individual experiences.
As we can see, we are faced with a terminological tumult which escapes classical ethology and is immersed in the roots of human philosophy. For example, terms like self-knowledge and self-awareness are interchangeable in many cases depending on who uses them. We leave it to the readers to decide whether or not to accept this variety of terminology.
The importance of being differentiated
There is no doubt that in the animal world, self-differentiation from external elements must be present in all living things (at least vertebrates). For example, this discrimination is carried out at the physiological level on a continuous basisAs the animal’s immune system identifies the external elements of its own being and fights them, such as viruses and bacteria harmful to the host.
It is not all down to a cell domain, as it is also essential to differentiate between other species and specific beings when interacting with the environment. If a prey is not able to differentiate its own species from potential predators, how could survival exist? Of course, without this very basic capacity for differentiation, natural selection and evolution as we know it today would not exist..
But to differentiate a danger from self-awareness, there are several thousand figurative kilometers. Fortunately, there are certain types of experiences that attempt to limit these limits and bring us closer to relatively definitive answers.
The mirror experience
One of the most common tests for quantifying the level of self-awareness in animals is the mirror test. Designed by Gordon G. Gallup, this experiment is based on place some kind of mark on the animal that he cannot perceive by looking at his body, but which is reflected in his face exposed to a mirror.
The usual primary response in animals is usually to treat their own reflection as if it were another individual, showing defensive responses or other social cues in front of the mirror. After that, however, some animals such as higher primates, elephants or dolphins end up “figuring out” that this figure is themselves, and they use the mirror to explore parts of their body that they did not have. could see before or touch. marked area, recognizing that they are able to correlate the structural change they have undergone with the body reflected in the glass.
When it comes to birds, only herons and crows in India have passed this test successfully, not without several controversies to consider. Some authors qualify this experiment to be ethologically invalid and based on a failed methodology.. For them, this self-recognition test in the mirror is nothing more than a sensorimotor response based on kinesthetic and visual stimuli. It should be noted that the other birds tested did not pass this test with positive results.
This means that birds have no general self-awareness beyond two or three isolated species, right? Of course not. For example, in experiments with gray parrots, it was observed that when discriminating objects, they are sometimes able to rely on mirror reflection for more information on spatial differentiation. In other words, parrots are able to understand (at least to some extent) the difference between the direct vision of an object and that seen through a mirror.
Another example is the response of some corvids to the presence of their own reflection. In the wild, these birds tend to hide their food more often when observed, because the risk of food theft by other co-specificity is higher. When these corvids were given food in front of a mirror, they exhibited typical behaviors in a moment of solitude when handling food. If these animals were not aware to some extent of their “own being” they would rush to protect their food lest the thoughtful individual steal it, right?
A sea of considerations
Although the experience of tagging and subsequent recognition of the individual’s body in the mirror reflection has yielded disastrous results in almost all species of birds, some birds have been shown to be able to use mirrors and their own reflection in complex methodological research.
Various scientific sources therefore postulate that this test may not be appropriate in the bird world. Perhaps they are unable to perceive themselves in the mirror, or perhaps their morphological and behavioral peculiarities (such as the absence of arms) prevent them from translating their mental process satisfactorily. If you test a fish’s ability to adapt to the environment by scaling a tree, the postulated result is surely that this animal is the least adapted on Earth to any ecosystem.
As we can see, to the question of whether birds have self-awareness, we cannot give a sure and reliable answer. Yes, the herons passed the reflex test and that is why in various scientific centers they are considered embarrassed, but there are more and more detractors and skeptics about this methodology.
On another side, it does not mean much unless the cognitive ability of birds is questioned. Many of them are capable of solving complex problems and exhibit neurological abilities similar to those of various primates, and the more refined the research methods, the more consciousness in the animal world is more prevalent than in a principle that we believed. .
- Baciadonna, L., Cornero, FM, Emery, NJ and Clayton, NS (2020). Convergent evolution of complex cognition: insights from the field of avian cognition to the study of self-awareness. Learning and Behavior, 1-14.
- Derégnaucourt, S. and Bovet, D. (2016). Self-perception in birds. Neuroscience and Biological Behavior Reviews, 69, 1-14.