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Bird Watch SXM

DSC_5037By Mark Yokoyama

What are they thinking?

If you spend any time around birds, you will inevitably wonder what they are thinking. Is that something we could ever truly know? Does that matter?

Birds are special animals in many ways; and one thing that makes them so appealing and intriguing to people is that we tend to identify with them. They're all around us, communicating with each other and doing things that we also do, in a broad sense. This is a big part of why we care about birds, watch birds and give birds names.

In our imagination, we tend to give birds the thoughts and feelings we might have. A chick running for shelter might be frightened, a kingbird chasing a heron away from its nest might be brave, a heron dropping leaves into the water to attract fish might be clever and a sugar bird visiting your table after lunch might be friendly. In our minds, they are like us because being human is all we really know.

Viewed through the lens of biology, attributing human thoughts and emotions to birds would seem to be a mistake. There really is no reason to believe they think and feel the way we do. Instinct, rather than decision-making, may drive much of what birds do. Our own thoughts and emotions are highly dependent on both our biology and our cultural environment. Even if what happens in those tiny bird brains is comparable to our thoughts, it might still be totally unrecognizable to us.

Having mentioned those tiny bird brains, it is worth mentioning that some thoughts about bird intelligence are derived from incorrect assumptions about their brains. Birds do have small brains compared to mammals, because birds need smaller, lighter heads to fly. Bird brains are structurally different from mammal brains, and it was long thought that most of a bird's brain was dedicated to simple bodily functions. Modern analysis indicates that large portions of a bird's brain are dedicated to higher functions, and that bird brains may have double the cell density of mammal brains. In short, bird brains are highly adapted to being small and lightweight while also being complex and powerful.

So, what are birds thinking? Perhaps their thoughts are nothing we would recognize or understand. After all, we don't know what it feels like to navigate halfway around the world with no map to a wintering ground we have never visited. Perhaps it doesn't matter. We don't need to know their thoughts in order to enjoy the birds around us and to protect the world we share. Perhaps the mystery is the best part.