BOOKS: The Human Nature of Birds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1993:

The Human Nature of Birds, by Theodore
Xenophon Barber. St. Martins Press (175 Fifth Ave,
New York, NY 10010), 1993, 226 pages, hardcover
$19.95 US, $26.95 in Canada.
What if we all woke up one day to discover the world
around us filled with alien intelligences? Theodore X. Barber
has, and he wants this revelation to become commonplace.
Young children and so-called primitive cultures take
for granted that all creatures on earth share the same fears and
desires, that we are all intelligent in our own way––at least
they do until convinced otherwise by self-styled authorities. In
The Human Nature of Birds, Barber attempts to reverse our
beliefs by examining our “closest wild neighbors, the birds.”
From a lifetime’s experience in psychological research and six
years’ study of birds in nature and in the scientific literature,
he concludes that, “not only are birds able to think simple
thoughts but they are fundamentally as aware, intelligent,
mindful, emotional and individualistic as ordinary people.”

While the readers of ANIMAL PEOPLE probably
already suspected as much, Barber provides enough experimen-
tal and anecdotal evidence to convince the most hardened skep-
tic. He also cites studies of intelligence in other species: pri-
mates, marine mammals and social insects.
Barber builds upon recent revisions in the way we
perceive behavior and intelligence, including Howard
Gardner’s 1983 theory of multiple intelligences and Donald
Griffin’s theories of nonhuman cognition. As humans are born
with specific instincts (for communicating through language
and walking upright), so are birds born with instincts to com-
municate in song and to fly. Yet what we say and where we go
is based on intelligent thought, each decision reached after
weighing known consequences. This cognitive process, con-
tends Barber, is no different for birds than for humans.
This is not to say that all species are alike in all
respects. Humans in general may be better at using tools than
birds in general (Barber includes some exceptions to this rule,
too), but birds are in general better navigators than most
humans. On the other hand, musical ability seems to be a tal-
ent common to birds, humans and some cetaceans. Birds are
probably better musicians than most humans, but they, too,
learn song by imitation and experimentation.
Ultimately, The Human Nature of Birds leaves us
with a plea and a challenge: a plea to befriend wild birds and
protect their environment, a challenge to understand them at
least as well as they seem to understand us. The implications
are daunting, for a few birds have already learned to communi-
cate in human language. The rewards are as yet unimaginable,
but at the very least it might lead to the future Barber wistfully
envisions when he writes, “Befriended birds can not only be
friends to our children but also share their concerns and show
affection and love for them.”
––Cathy Young Czapla
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