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Why Study Birds?

ISSUE:  Winter 1970

More people observe and study birds than any other class of (nonhuman) animals. This prompts the question, why? Apparently the answer has been taken as too obvious to call for much thought. And to some extent it is obvious. Still it is worth considering for a moment in some definiteness. I find a good many factors favoring bird-study over other forms of zoological inquiry.

1. Birds fly. So do many other creatures-but still, birds are the supreme natural “aviators.”

2. Birds migrate. So do some other creatures-but still, birds are the extreme example of this wondrous phenomenon.

3. Like ourselves, birds are warmblooded. So are all mammals, but birds are the warmest animals of all, and this (for physico-chemical reasons) helps to give them a quickness, a vivacity, which is stimulating to behold.

4. Birds, remarkably like ourselves, have family life. They not only produce offspring but co-operate to care for them, and there is a marked-though as in man far from universal or unqualified-trend toward monogamy, mating uniquely and for life. Many mammals are less like us in this respect.

5. Except for ostriches, cassowaries, emus, and a few others, birds are much smaller than we are, and they do not frighten us as some reptiles and mammals do; yet they are not so insignificant seeming and hard to see as the more or less tiny insects. And they are of nearly all possible sizes be­ tween that of a tall child and a large insect.

6. The multitude of avian species (c. 9000) is sufficient to furnish interesting variety, thrice that of reptiles or mammals, yet not huge enough to baffle comprehension, as the profusion of insect forms does for most of us.

7. Birds are more intensely and variously beautiful than other classes of animals.

8. Unlike some insects and rodents, birds do not in irritating or harmful ways enter our dwellings, yet they can live close to those dwellings (within narrower limits than most suppose, alas).

9. For the most part birds are not competitive with us for food, and on the whole probably assist agriculture.

10. Like civilized man, less like primitive man, much less like most mammals, birds are guided primarily by sights and sounds, rather than smells, and their hearing and color vision compare well with ours.

11. Only birds, but all birds, have feathers, those marvellous “inventions” of evolutionary nature-matchless insulators and structural elements, able to preserve high bodily temperatures and support the weight of a condor without adding more than trifling weight of their own.

12. Birds sing. Other animals produce music-like sounds, but how primitive they are compared to the more elaborate or refined bird songs! More than one composer has been inspired by them – hardly by crickets or frogs.

The foregoing twelve reasons taken together add up to what Edgar Kincaid, that superb naturalist, says is for him the reason: birds are the happy medium between creatures (like apes and monkeys) too close for comfort to us troublesome, destructive human beings and those (like worms or trees) too remote from us to be comprehensible. Birds are wonderfully like and wonderfully unlike ourselves.

Granted, some readers may say, that among the nonhuman animals, those with feathers are the most worth studying, still—why study any animals other than human beings?

In popular medieval writings about the lower animals these were sometimes presented as models of moral behavior. Thus the pelican fed her offspring with her own blood from self-inflicted wounds. The flaw here was that the animals themselves as directly observed were scarcely consulted, but only human hearsay about them. In a medieval bestiary the really “strange animal,” to us moderns, is the author or his intended reader.

Yet something can perhaps be salvaged from this tradition. I once in a woods saw a harmless little snake and, out of curiosity to see what would happen, dashed after its fleeing form. Suddenly I was brought to a stop. There, facing me, was the essentially unarmed little creature, looking as menacing as open mouth and poised head could make it appear to be. “So,” said I to myself, “if the first method (flight) fails, one tries another (simulation of formidable attack).” I did not suppose this to have been an act of moral courage in the snake. But it was what in a reflective animal, such as a man, almost has to be such an act.

The other animals are nonmoral, but they tend to do what needs to be done to make nature on this planet the viable, variegated, symbiotic affair it is. Man has to do his part in all this knowingly, hence morally; but he should do it. If one method fails, another must be tried.

A wolf attacked by a wolf defends itself if it can; if not, it bows in submission, thus making itself wholly vulnerable (Lorenz). But this act ends the fight. It is not that the one accepting the submission is moral; but that so wolves must act if this heavily armed species is to be a going concern. Man too confronts aggressive fellow creatures; but he must do so reflectively—i.e., morally (or immorally), not nonmorally.

Here is another moral lesson from our humbler relatives, this time from birds, that medieval writers would not have thought of. Not only are birds more or less monogamous, as man is, but they illustrate what a broad survey of man’s history shows is true of him, namely, that there is no essential difference in function between male and female, except in the physical aspects of procreation. There is, in the world of birds, as in the human world, adequately surveyed, nothing that females cannot and do not (in some cases) do, except impregnate another female. They may sing, and even sing brilliantly, they may have the more brilliant plumage (phalarope); they may turn incubating over to the male and be the defenders of territory. (Similarly in the human world, they may be scientists, artists, authors, rulers, anything you like.) And there is nothing that male birds cannot and in some cases do not do except one strictly indispensable thing, lay eggs. They may or may not build nests, incubate eggs, feed young, whatever you please, except the infinitely important thing they lack organs to accomplish. If bird life is so flexible about the roles of the sexes, man, who is the most plastic animal by an immeasurable margin, should have done with the idea that there is some built-in reason why women or why men should always or never do this or that. If it is physiologically possible, it may under some circumstances be desirable and appropriate that women or that men should do whatever you can mention. A woman’s “place,” like a man’s, is where she is most needed and can be most creative. The birds “know” that much; it is time we did.

Any analogy between man and other animals, especially those so different from him as birds, must be taken with severe reservations. In mammals mothers differ from fathers much ‘more than in oviparous species. Even with birds, females are in general more extensively concerned with direct care of offspring than males. And of course man’s symbolic power puts the individual into a very different environment from any that other kinds of earthly animal respond to. To this extent moral or sociological lessons from birds cannot be taken without severe qualification. On the other hand there is so much in a man besides those higher brain centers which enable him to employ symbols in radically unique degree (if not kind) that the glib denial that man is subject to instinctive influences upon behavior is, I suspect, talking rather from ignorance than knowledge, even though the denial has often come from high authorities.

By far the most promising attempt to derive useful lessons from animal study is that by ethologists, especially Ardrey in “The Territorial Imperative” and Konrad Lorenz in “On Aggression.” Critics of these books can easily show faults, particularly in Ardrey, but they cannot in my opinion make a good case for neglecting either work. The way in which territorial defense has, through much of the animal kingdom, involved the parallel development of in-group amity and out­group hostility, combined with the prehistory of our species as coming out of a carnivorous type, weak physically apart from weapons and group action, preying upon animals his own size or larger, subject to being preyed upon himself, in open country such that he must often defend himself rather than climb a tree or hide, throws I do believe real light upon human history to this day. “Man is a beast of prey,” said Spengler. He is far worse than that. He is a predator that hunts in packs, fights in packs, and has never had the inhibitions which are almost universal in the animal world upon deliberately killing members of his own species. He is not, as most territorial creatures, content to defend a territory; he keeps looking for territories so weakly defended that con­ quest is possible. This type of creature endowed with vast technological powers is a fearsome thing indeed. Our complacency is menaced by such talk, but does it not need to be menaced? Our television shows suggest every day the possible relevance of what Ardrey is saying.

Just what the limitations of this point of view may be I shall not here inquire, but I am sure that it cannot be disposed of by what Charles Peirce called the “pooh-pooh argument.” As with Freudianism, it must be digested and pondered for decades if not for centuries.

In two respects, as Ardrey notes, the new doctrine helps to correct Freud. It makes his death wish at least largely superfluous, and it shows that there are in animals powerful forces distinct from sex but making, within limits, for love and friendship. Group-defense of territory, and other forms of co-operation, even in birds, and much more in primates, can be quite intense entirely outside of the mating season. I would not myself, as Ardrey does, speak of co-operative, other-regarding behavior in the lower animals as “moral,” but neither is it “selfish.” In whatever sense an animal without our symbolic power can be motivated by “self-interest,” it can also, and just as literally, be motivated by “altruism.” (I have known this for fifty years.) Self-protection is not the first law of nature, which is rather, serve the needs of the species, looking after yourself where the species needs your survival, risking your safety where the species needs that. But this involves no moral decision in nonhuman animals, since they cannot act from principle, even the principle of self-interest. They do what they feel like doing; it’ is man who must think about the rightness of his feelings. But doing simply what one feels like doing is not, in any reasonable sense, necessarily selfish. It is in the ethical sense neither selfish nor unselfish, though it may be either selfish or unselfish in the instinctual or pre-ethical sense.

Regard for others, sympathy, is a widespread animal trait and to call helpful acts springing from sympathy “selfish” is to lose sight of any useful meaning for that word. Alas, however, if sympathy is far older than man, so is antipathy.

However all this may be, moral or sociological lessons are not the justifying fruits of animal study. Even if we could understand ourselves and our duties to our fellows sufficiently by observing other people only-and we have not so far accomplished this, as a glance at the day’s news will show-we could not in the full sense be ourselves in this way. Man is the observing animal par excellence. His distinguishing trait, as G. H. Mead has shown, is that he can “take the role of the other” and this not necessarily by doing what the other does, but by imagining doing it. It is not simply that “I am a man, and nothing human is alien to me.” More, I am a symbol of deity, interested in all creatures whatsoever.

There is no line between human—i.e., reflective—and merely animal life. A baby is a quite unreflective creature, below the ape level of actual reasoning. Man cannot, except artificially and by impoverishing himself, cut off his curiosity at the bounds of the human. Moreover, since technology makes man the master, not indeed of all nature (this is megalomania or astronomical stupidity) but of life on this little planet, or in this little solar system, or this little galaxy (it will still be little in the great Immensity), he is therefore moral trustee for the others. He should know what the others are, since only so can he know what he is doing to them. And – how much he is, and will be, doing to them!

Civilization has produced various forms of disharmony between man and nature. In Amazonian Ecuador I was once guided to the one nearby patch of rainforest not yet wholly obliterated by man. My guide was an almost tiny, wiry Indian able to speak Spanish – how well I could not know. It turned out that he understood the bird calls and songs we were hearing in this wood. Pointing toward one sprightly but wholly invisible singer, with his fingers he showed me its size and named its color. Pointing toward another invisible singer, he said, “compañero.” At once it came over me: “Of course, tropicals wrens duet.” The tiny “chocolate” bird was a wren, and it and its mate were exchanging greetings. Everything, including the style of song, fitted the notion. I concluded that this man knew at least something about the glorious tropical life around him. But what appreciation could he get for this knowledge? I was grateful, and he seemed pleased that I was interested in such things. But how many others? And if his children, whom I saw, went to school, what would they learn of Ecuadorean nature? Mighty little, I imagine.

In the Fijis a youngster nominated to conduct me in the government-owned forest seemed to know little about the birds, surely less than the Ecuadorean. Perhaps, though, he knew more about trees. In his school (doubtless he had gone to a school), what nature was presented to him? The English countryside? Shelley’s Skylark, Wordsworth’s Cuckoo? I do not know. But it would be a pleasant surprise to learn that Fijian nature was taught. And what about India? For that matter, not to attack the British in particular, what about the Philippines? Do their children learn about their own songbirds, of which they have some lovely ones? Colonialism takes odd and mostly sad forms. The British did fine ornithological work in most parts of their empire. But in all India there was until recently only one nonforeign ornithologist, Salim Ali. (Now there are a few more.) Colonial education had other concerns – this must be part of the reason.

I cannot refrain from mentioning one more case of colonialism in nature study, our own internal colonialism toward the blacks. It has long been a matter of shame to me that I have met – and barely met – only one birdwatcher of Afro­American origin. In the Old South, as Archibald Rutledge shows us, there were Negro hunters with a feeling for and knowledge of nature. But the gap I have spoken of between such knowledge and modern scientifically illuminated knowledge, how hard it is to cross! Yet how worth crossing. There are many ways of being underprivileged. Sometimes it seems that only the rich can live close to nature. The poor cannot afford the space; they must harvest the woods if they have any, or crowd it out of existence.

E. Thomas Gilliard tells, delightfully, how the people in the mountains of New Guinea seemed able to understand that strangers might be interested in the birds of their country. What they could make nothing of was the foreigners who came to extract tiny yellow sand grains from the river beds! E. M. Nicholson says that only a small fraction of man­ kind has any sense for the beauty of bird songs. With all my admiration for this writer, I cannot but suspect a trace, or more than a trace, of snobbery in this remark. The Polynesians admired beautiful bird feathers. Were they without all sense of beautiful songs? My own view is that for tens of thousands, and probably hundreds of thousands of years, man or manlike creatures have enjoyed the songs of birds. For uncounted centuries, especially in Asia, they have caged good singers—yes, and even crickets. And I think the evidence is best interpreted to mean that for millions of years birds themselves have, in their own way, been enjoying their own songs, and in imitative species at least, songs of some other species.



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