The Human Nature of Birds

Are birds capable of purposeful behavior? Do they show signs of intelligence and self-awareness? Or are they merely driven by instinct and reflex? Theodore Barber has spent the past six years investigating the question of avian intelligence, and his conclusions are startling. Based on his own research and on the studies of other scientists, he has concluded that birds are indeed capable of a wide range of purposeful behavior, including making and using tools, showing emotions, understanding abstract concepts, creating musical compositions, solving difficult navigation problems, and forming friendships with humans. His conclusions may force readers to rethink their assumptions about the prevalence of intelligence in the animal kingdom.

Barber’s work has evolved from the cognitive ethology movement, which investigates mental experiences in animals and tries to unite the disciplines of comparative psychology, ethology, and the brain sciences. This work was pioneered by Donald R. Griffin of Rockefeller University, whose studies demonstrated flexibility, awareness, simple feelings, and simple thoughts in nonhuman animals.

In studying the question of avian intelligence, Barber has had to confront two scientific biases: that against anthropomorphism (attributing human behavior to nonhuman creatures) and that favoring the anthropocentric (human-centered) view that humans are unique in their capacity for intelligent behavior.

Although some of Barber’s examples are anecdotal, he cites detailed examples of intelligent, purposeful behavior and communication between humans and gray parrots, scrub jays, crows, parakeets, starlings, owls, and great tits. He refutes the arguments of small brain size, instinct, and behavioral conditioning that have been used to disparage avian intelligence. When birds lose their fear of humans and when humans come to know birds as individuals, he argues, humans will learn to appreciate birds’ abilities.