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from Humane Religion

May - June 1997 Issue


Among the many smart birds that Alexander F. Skutch introduces in The Minds of Birds is a famous African gray parrot named Alex who uses a vocabulary of more than 40 words, can work with numbers up to six and deal accurately with objects of five different shapes and seven different colors. Not only that, but he catches on to trick questions and runs new observers through his tests to see if they know as much as he does.

Alex has been called on to support a decision that Mr. Skutch has taken most of a long lifetime to reach. "Soon after I began to study birds, well over 60 years ago, I began to wonder about their psychic lives," he writes. After many years of watching, he continues, "I am far less certain of what on inside their heads than of what they visibly do, but I have reached some tentative conclusion." What goes on in those heads, he declares, is the extraordinary process called intelligence linked to the very human state called consciousness.

This is, in a sense, ornithological heresy, although heretic would be an odd epithet for Alexander Skutch. At 92, he is one of the wise old men of his * Author of The World of Watchers, a book about birding. discipline, and The Minds of Birds is his summa ornithological. His wisdom carries special weight in the latest re-opening of an old philosophical, scientific and theological dispute over animal intelligence.

Two hundred fifty years ago David Hume held that “beasts are endowed with thought and reason”

David Hume held 250 years ago that "beasts are endowed with thought and reason," and Darwin decided that "snails were capable of affection up to a certain point." Yet in this century a prevailing majority of ethologists, who study animal behavior, have denied such views and pretty much crushed them. Animals, they insist, have neither thought nor reason, emotion nor consciousness. They say that what seem to be demonstrations of innovative intelligence or of feelings are only extensions of innate or instinctive behavior.

So much, it would seem, for Alex and his intellectual feats. But Mr. Skutch, joining a small band of dissenters who believe animals have an intelligence "not programmed" in their genes, summons a host of other avian prodigies to back him up. There is the caged blue jay that, unable to get at There is the caged blue jay that, unable to get at seeds in an adjoining cage, picked up a piece of newspaper in its bill, pushed it over, scooped up some seeds and pulled the paper back. The woodpecker finches that choose cactus spines of varying lengths as tools to impale insects out of the reach of their bills. And the hooded crows that steal from ice fishermen by pulling the line up in their beaks, then walking it as far across the ice as they can go and, returning for another length, make sure they step on the line so it won't slip back.

Scientists, as Mr. Skutch realizes, have little use for such anecdotal evidence, demanding data that can be duplicated or dealt with statistically. Shrugging that off, Skutch piles on the evidence—the astonishing abilities of birds to navigate and to remember, their intricate social lives and esthetic reactions, their delight in pure play.

He is unabashed in attributing human characteristics to birds. "It is remarkable," he says, "how often the sounds that birds make suggest the emotions that we might feel in similar circumstances: soft notes like lullabies while calmly warming their eggs or nestlings; mournful cries while helplessly watching an intruder at their nests." Watching " a lonesome little bird" torn between evading a predator and protecting her eggs, he remarks, "I could imagine the turmoil in her mind." After a while” he sighs, "her courage failed."

hr-199705-05-birdsPraise the Lord Praise the Lord from the earth, wild animals and all cattle, Small creatures and flying birds.

hr-199705-05-pigPsalm 148: 7,10hr-199705-05-cow

The Minds of Birds is a marvelous anthology of classic bird stories, a measured brief for a radical judgment and a moral tract—questioning a basic tenet of our self-assumed uniqueness in nature. It is also an endearing portrait of a patriarch of the world of birds sitting in his Costa Rican garden, evaluating the behavior of scarlet-rumpled tanagers, rufous-browed peppershrikes and melodious blackbirds. Unable to hold back his passionate admiration, he praises a bird's tiny brain as an "outstanding achievement of miniaturization....among the most wonderful pieces of organized matter that nature has produced."

Like a lawyer dealing in circumstantial evidence, Mr. Skutch sets out not so much to prove as to persuade. He roots so earnestly for the intelligence of his birds that he has us rooting for them too. "The more profoundly and sympathetically we study them," he declares "the stronger grows our sense that they are conscious creatures.”

The Minds of Birds, 183 pp. Texas A & M Press. Hardcover, $29.95

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