Do birds have self-consciousness?
Can there be birds with experience of self-awareness? Let's see what the research shows.
Several recent studies have observed that some birds (corvids and parrots) have developed a series of cognitive tools comparable to those of certain primates and other large mammals.
Despite the fact that culturally many winged animals have been catalogued as "intelligent" and "resolute" beings by the general population since ancient times, the truth is that human beings are more fascinated by what most resembles them, and that is why most experiments in ethology and animal behavior have been directed at large primates in captivity.
This leaves a question in the air that is very difficult to answer: do birds have self-awareness? From a completely empirical point of view and with a critical look, we will try to interpret what is known about this subject.
Do birds have self-awareness? The dilemma of humanization
Ethology is the branch of biology and experimental psychology that studies the behavior of animals, whether in a free situation or in laboratory conditions. This scientific discipline is a double-edged sword, since the interpretation of the empirical results depends, to a large extent, on the person who observes them.
It is for this reason that human beings have been blamed on many occasions for "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 revive it, or is it simply making itself comfortable on a furry surface that is still warm? As cruel as it may sound, in many cases evolutionary mechanisms do not understand empathy and understanding.
For this reason, and given that we move on a "glass" surface of knowledge, it is necessary that we narrow down the term consciousness itself before continuing.
According to the Royal Spanish Academy of the 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 same, the capacity of the individual to perceive external objects and differentiate them from events that are the product of his internal functioning..
This complex term encompasses other ideas, as there are other psychological events that are sometimes used as synonyms or related. Here are some examples:
- Awareness: the ability to perceive objects, events and sensory patterns. In biology it is the cognitive response to an event.
- Self-awareness: an individual's ability to separate oneself from the environment and other living beings, as well as the ability of introspection.
- Self-awareness: an acute type of self-awareness, where concern and reflection on the individual's state arises.
- Sentience: the ability to perceive or experience situations or events subjectively.
- Sapience: the ability of an organism to act with appropriate judgment, a characteristic of an individual with intelligence.
- Qualia: the subjective qualities of individual experiences.
As we can see, we are faced with a terminological hotchpotch that escapes classical ethology and is immersed in the roots of human philosophy. For example, terms such as self-knowledge and self-awareness are interchangeable in many cases depending on who uses them.. We leave it to the readers to judge whether or not to accept this terminological variety.
The importance of differentiation of the self
There is no doubt that in the animal world, self-differentiation from external elements must be present in all living beings (at least vertebrates). For example, this discrimination is carried out at the physiological level on a continuous basis.The immune system of animals identifies the external elements of their own being and fights them, such as viruses and bacteria that are harmful to the host.
Not everything can be reduced to a cellular level, because differentiation between beings of other species and conspecifics is also essential 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 such a basic ability to differentiate, natural selection and evolution as we know it today would not exist..
But from differentiating a danger to self-awareness is several thousand figurative miles away. Fortunately, there are some types of experiments that try to narrow these limits and bring us closer to relatively definitive answers.
- You might be interested in "Animals that have learned to use tools: what do we know about them?"
The mirror experiment
One of the most common tests when it comes to quantifying the level of self-awareness in animals is the mirror test. Designed by Gordon G. Gallup, this experiment is based on placing some kind of marking on the animal placing some type of marking on the animal that it cannot perceive when it looks at its body, but that is reflected in its figure when it is exposed to a mirror. in its figure when it is exposed to a mirror.
The usual primary response of the animal is usually to treat its own reflection as if it were another individual, showing defense responses or other social cues in front of the mirror. After this, however, certain animals such as higher primates, elephants or dolphins end up "understanding" that the figure is themselves, and use the mirror to explore parts of their body that they had not been able to see before or to touch the marked area, thus recognizing that they are able to correlate the structural modification they have undergone with the body that is reflected in the glass.
As far as birds are concerned, only magpies and Indian crows have passed this test with flying colors, but not without controversy. Some authors have described this experiment as ethologically invalid and based on a flawed methodology.. For them, this mirror self-recognition test is nothing more than a sensorimotor response based on kinesthetic and visual stimuli. It should be noted that the rest of the birds tested did not pass this test with positive results.
This means that birds do not have self-awareness in general beyond two or three isolated species, right? Certainly not. For example, in experiments with grey parrots it has been observed that when discriminating objects, they are sometimes able to rely on the mirror reflection to obtain more information in terms of spatial differentiation. That is, parrots are able to understand (at least to some extent) the difference between the direct vision of an object and that perceived through a mirror.
Another example is the response of certain corvids to the presence of their own reflection.. In the natural environment, these birds tend to hide their food more often when observed, as the risk of the food being stolen by another conspecific is higher. When these corvids were given food in front of a mirror, they showed typical behaviors in a moment of solitude when handling food. If these animals were to some extent unaware of their "self", they would rush to protect their food for fear that the mirrored individual would steal it, wouldn't they?
A sea of considerations
Although the experiment of marking and subsequent recognition of the individual's body in the mirror reflection has produced disastrous results in almost all bird species, certain birds have been shown to be capable of using mirrors and their own reflection, certain birds have demonstrated that they are capable of using mirrors and their own reflection in investigations of complex methodology.
Several scientific sources postulate, therefore, that this test may not be appropriate in the bird world. Perhaps birds are not able 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 the adaptability of a fish to the environment is tested by having it climb a tree, surely the postulated result will be that this animal is the worst adapted on Earth to any ecosystem.
As we can see, to the question of whether birds are self-aware, we cannot give a safe and reliable answer. Yes, magpies have passed the reflex test and therefore in several scientific circles they are considered to be self-aware, but there are more and more detractors and skeptics of this methodology.
On the other hand, this does not mean that the cognitive capacity of birds is in any way questioned.. Many of them are capable of solving complex problems and show neurological capacities similar to those of various primates, and the more research methods are refined, the more it becomes clear that consciousness in the animal world is more widespread than we originally thought.
- Baciadonna, L., Cornero, F.M., Emery, N.J., & Clayton, N.S. (2020). Convergent evolution of complex cognition: Insights from the field of avian cognition into the study of self-awareness. Learning & Behavior, 1-14.
- Derégnaucourt, S., & Bovet, D. (2016). The perception of self in birds. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 69, 1-14.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)