Are birds self-aware? / by Daniella Teixeira

A fundamental question of humankind is: what do we owe to non-human animals? What are our moral obligations to them? In attempt to answer this, scientists and philosophers have for centuries debated the dominant theme of self-awareness. If an animal is self-aware, and therefore experiences a state of mind similar to our own, perhaps we have important moral obligations towards them.

Many animals experience emotions. Happiness, sadness, fear, care, possibly even altruism, are all present in some non-human animals. You only need to look at the behaviour of your pet dog or budgie to recognise this. They’re excited to see you, or by the prospect of food or a new toy. They groom their mates, and ‘talk’ to each other and to us. They flinch when they’re hurt, and they’re scared in thunderstorms. It’s clear that, in this manner, many animals can experience states of pleasure and pain in ways that are relatable to us humans.

However, an important distinction between human and non-human states of self is that we know that we know.

That is, we have the cognitive ability to know that we have a mind, and that other people have a mind. We know when we experience an emotion, and that others experience those emotions too. Other animals know things without knowing that they know those things. When other animals are happy, they experience happiness. When we’re happy, we know that we’re experiencing happiness. This heightened level of self-awareness is what differentiates us cognitively from most other animals, or at least those few species that have been studied.

Testing self-awareness

To test self-awareness in other animals, scientists commonly use a mirror-mark test. This method involves marking a spot on an animal’s body that it cannot see without the aid of a mirror. If the animal locates the mark on itself when viewing itself in a mirror, then it is considered to show a level of self-awareness.

Most animals studied to date have failed this test. In fact, most animals either don’t register anything in a mirror, or they behave as if their reflection were another individual. Some even become aggressive towards their own reflection. By and large, the mark goes unnoticed.

There are some notable exceptions, however, and this is where it gets interesting. Animals that have conclusively passed the mirror-mark test are the great apes, bottlenose dolphins, Asian elephants, and the Eurasian magpie (unrelated to the Australian magpie). Mammals are often characterised by their intelligence, so it’s no surprise that apes, dolphins and elephants are self-aware. But the magpie? A bird? Is it really that intelligent?

Yes, it is. And probably many other birds are too.

Brainy birds

Parrots, hummingbirds and some songbirds learn sounds (in the form of ‘songs’ or ‘vocalisations’), and some can continue to do so throughout life. Think of Pretty Polly who says “hello” when you walk in the door, or mimics your phone’s ringtone. This is akin to humans learning a language. Language is not something we are born with. It’s something we learn from other people. These birds can do the same. This is in contrast to most animals, whose sounds are genetically pre-programmed and cannot be altered through learning.

This phenomenal ability, termed ‘vocal learning’, is rare in the animal kingdom. So far, in addition to these birds, it has only identified in humans, elephants, bats and some marine mammals. Birds are the only non-mammal that have been shown to have the ability of vocal learning, demonstrating that some of their cognitive abilities are probably quite similar to our own.

Indeed, the brain structure of birds is far more similar to mammals’ than was previously thought. Recent research suggests that birds and mammals faced similar evolutionary pressures to develop complex brains, which has resulted in similar levels of intelligence. For instance, there are stark similarities in the parts of the brains responsible for song, speech and hearing. Parrots and corvids (e.g. crows, magpies) are especially interesting, with forebrains of a similar relative size to that of apes and their ability to perform comparatively well in tasks of memory, tool-use and ‘theory of mind’.

It is not surprising, then, that magpies have demonstrated self-awareness through mirror-mark tests. Identifying a mark on itself when viewing its reflection, without any prior training, clearly shows a level of self-awareness in this bird. I have no doubt that other birds, especially parrots and other corvids, could show the same.

In fact, both the magpie and the jackdaw (both corvids) have shown behaviours in mirror-mark tests where they responded to their reflections by moving back and forth in a systematic way. Likewise, New Caledonian crows (another corvid), repeatedly played “peekaboo” with their reflections. The same has been observed in African grey parrots. One African grey parrot appeared to recognise its own foot in a mirror. Both African grey parrots and New Caledonian crows have located hidden food with the aid of a mirror.

Do these behaviours infer another kind of self-awareness? I think it’s possible.

All things considered, scientists in 2012 stated in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness that:

 “Birds appear to offer, in their behaviour, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots. Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought”.

It certainly makes me think about the intelligence and self-awareness of the black-cockatoos (which are parrots) that I’m studying as part of my PhD. Whether they’re self-aware in the way humans are is unclear, but I’m sure they’re far more complex in mind and sociality than we currently recognise.

What does it all mean?

If some animals are truly self-aware at a level similar to humans, if they know that they know, then we arguably have greater moral obligations to them than what current discourses around welfare suggest.

I agree with this in part, in that such levels of self-awareness cannot be overlooked by us in our treatment of non-human animals. However, the reverse is not, in my opinion, true. A lack of evidence of self-awareness in a humanlike way does not imply a lack of obligation on our part. These animals, and their cognitive abilities, are adapted to the lives that they lead and ecological niches they fill. That’s not something, I think, that we can render less important because their states of mind differ from our own.

There are still many gaps in my thoughts in this arena and certainly how this affects every day decisions. I’ve merely touched the surface of this complex topic. But since I work on animals, and study their behaviours, I will continue to learn and think about this issue. I look forward to seeing what emerges in this field as science and philosophy catch up with each other.