“We proclaim human intelligence to be morally valuable per se because we are human. If we were birds, we would proclaim the ability to fly as morally valuable per se. If we were fish, we would proclaim the ability to live underwater as morally valuable per se. But apart from our obviously self-interested proclamations, there is nothing morally valuable per se about human intelligence.” – Gary L. Francione
This morning, I am heartened by the parrots. First, it’s Bruce, a New Zealand kea with a severe disability, who has fashioned his own prosthetic. Bruce is missing most of his upper beak, which is essential for preening, which removes parasites and dirt from feathers. Researchers watching Bruce observed that he was not simply enamored with pebbles in a random manner. He only picked them up to preen. Unlike other birds interacting with stones for other reasons, Bruce only picked up pebbles of a specific size. He’d fit these between his tongue and lower beak when he preened. No other kea did this. It was his own idea, they concluded. Upon publication of these findings, some asked the scientists why they had not given Bruce a proper prosthetic. He doesn’t need one, they answered.
Also, in an experiment involving trading tokens for treats, African grey parrots have been demonstrating a remarkable tendency to help one another, even when there is no obvious benefit to the helper. When one parrot had the tokens, but no access to the treats, he would pass the tokens to the bird beside him, even if the other was a stranger. The other bird could trade the tokens for treats. Repeating the experiment with other species, researchers found the Blue-headed macaws to be more selfish, perhaps because they live in smaller, unchanging groups. One of the researchers offered an alternative reading of this disparity in sharing, suggesting that perhaps the selfish species are just not as good at understanding the needs of their mates.
I have no small amount of fascination with birds, and reminders back to this often call to mind a passage from Terry Tempest Williams: “Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated” (from When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice). Amen.
I discovered a report about the study published in The Journal of Scientific Reports, “Self-care tooling innovation in a disabled kea” through a link in this New York Times article by Nicholas Bakalar, which in turn led me to this one on African grey parrots by Elizabeth Preston.
Gary L. Francione has raised interesting questions about the way that current practices in what passes for animal rights legislation tend only to reinforce systemic hierarchies that treat animals as property. Distinguishing between rights and welfare of animals, Francione has argued that the single most important right of animals that should be understood, is the right not to be treated as property.
More bird-themed posts: