A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Did Hitchcock Have It Right about Birds?


Are the birds out to get us? When movie director Alfred Hitchcock decided to scare us all to death with seagulls and crows in his movie The Birds in 1963, was he tapping into a deep uncertainty that we humans have about birds?

Fifty years after The Birds hit the movie screen, however, you’d have to assume that if our feathered friends ever go to the movies, they’d be truly terrified by Avian Hitchcock’s X-rated movie The Humans. After all, while human population is still ballooning, the birds aren’t doing so well. According to a new report from Birdlife International, we’re driving them off the planet, with one in eight bird species now facing total extinction. Climate change is affecting millions more as, for example, they arrive at their migration destinations in the spring, only to find that spring has already come and gone and there’s nothing left to eat. Or that their favorite forest has turned into a city or a plantation. There’s a whole lot more going on in their proverbial bird brains than we used to imagine.

But they’ll figure it out, even if it takes a few more years – or a few thousand. After all, the more we learn about them, the more we discover there’s a whole lot more going on in their proverbial bird brains than we used to imagine.

One of the latest discoveries is to do with chickens – classic “bird brains” – who, it turns out, use mathematical logic, routinely “think, draw inferences, apply logic and plan ahead,” and show levels of empathy that don’t begin to manifest in humans until at least age four.

Not that their empathy always extends to humans. If a crow doesn’t like you, she’ll remember your face for years to come. When researchers kept an eye on crows in Seattle, they learned that if a crow decided she didn’t like you, she’d recognize you at once, even if you’d stayed away for a whole year and came back wearing different clothes. She’d even teach other crows to come after you, dive-bombing you in mobs. Just like in the movie. (Is that why a flock of crows is called a “murder of crows”?)

They’re fun-loving animals, too. Would anyone doubt that this crow is having a wonderful time with his snowboard?

When I asked Jonathan Balcombe, author of The Exultant Ark – a Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure, what’s going on in this video, he wrote back:

[It] speaks volumes about a crow’s inner life. That it is play is undeniable. And there’s much more: tool use, planning, the emotion of fun. Few jar lids end up on roofs, so the hooded crow almost certainly carried it up there.

Next time you look at a crow, remind yourself that there is someone inside that feathered body.

ichtyornis-bird-061913Birds, as we now know, are just dinosaurs in fancy dress. In the new Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and Other Winged Dinosaurs, Matthew Martyniuk gives an idea of what scientists think some of the early birds looked like. Wired magazine has a good article about this with lots of pics. Martyniuk explains that modern birds probably evolved from an ancestor like Ichthyornis, a seabird who successfully migrated out of the Fifth Mass Extinction that brought a so-called “end” to the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The dinosaurs/birds got their start about 200 million years ago. We humans got our start about 200 thousand years ago. That makes them a thousand times older than we are.

They’ve already made it through two mass extinctions – the one 65 million years ago, brought on by an asteroid, and an earlier one, 200 million years ago, precipitated, we believe, by massive volcanoes, that brought an end to the Triassic Age.

Now they’re facing a third extinction event – this one brought on by humans. And while we blithely cut down their forests, poison their oceans and disrupt their climate, we seem to think that everything must be fine since our own population just keeps growing and the economy is “bouncing back”.

Just like a classic stock market bubble.

So, who’s more likely to survive this next mass extinction: humans or birds?

I’d put my money on the birds. I’d even cheer them on. After all, they’re smart and sassy; they have a sense of humor; they enjoy all the good things of life; they’re beautiful and colorful; they can sing and dance, and they’re super-chatty, too. Plus, they can do aerobatics.

And if they can’t invent iPads, Windows 8 and nerve gas, is that such a big drawback? Then again, if it is, just give them a few million years (barely the blink of an evolutionary eye) while some of them grow their frontal lobes a bit more and trade their wings in for hands, just as, millions of years ago, they traded their dinosaur hands in for wings.

So, did Hitchcock have it right? Well, probably not, in fact. In the final analysis, the birds don’t have to waste their energy attacking us humans. More likely, they’re just waiting us out.