Right now I am reading “Mind of the Raven” by Bernd Heinrich.
It is great bedtime reading, because instead of attempting to go to sleep while worrying about my bank balance or whether I’ll be single forever, I can go to bed worrying about whether I can finish this 350+ page tome before the library sends the angry check-out police to my door.
Plus, corvids just fascinate me. According to Science Magazine, corvids (crows, ravens, magpies, jays) are capable of mental time travel, social cognition (whatever that is), and tool manufacture. According to fellow corvid enthusiast and author Candace Savage,
Crows, ravens, magpies, and jays are not just feathered machines, rigidly programmed by their genetics. Instead, they are beings that, within the constraints of their molecular inheritance, make complex decisions and show every sign of enjoying a rich awareness.
Cooooool. Plus – I just have to say it – I rather think I already knew that.
PBS’ “Ravens – Discover the Brainpower of the Bird in Black” features studies by Heinrich and others that prove corvids are as smart as canines. Not only that, but Heinrich has observed how his ravens (those he raises and those he studies in the wild) have distinct dining preferences – for instance, these meat-loving avians turn up their beaks at a snack of fresh raw beef liver, but hone right in on scattered potato chips.
All this just reminds me again why animals make such good mentors – at least for me. For starters, they bust up my human arrogance by surprising me at every turn. Also, the more I read and learn, the more I am realizing animals can think, feel, act, react, intuit, and evolve – in ways that are appropriate to the challenges and opportunities in their lives and environments – at a mind-blowing and still far from well-understood level.
In a Time Magazine article titled “The Mystery of Animal Grief” by Jeffrey Kluger, scientists explain that animals do grieve – and that they honor and mourn their dead with an intensity some people don’t even display.
For instance, researchers have observed how crows will gather around a departed crow and call and call until hundreds of flock mates arrive. They will then stand surrounding the dead crow and maintain total silence, broken only by occasional approaches to offer odds and ends to the corpse – for instance, pebbles or short sticks. After a period of time, they will depart, never to return.
So while some of my species yet feel discomfort about claiming animal emotion, intention, and action approaches that of humans, I have no discomfort at all with admitting this.
In fact, I can share with total honesty that my pet parrot, Pearl, has mentored me more kindly and more thoroughly than many humans I know. He also teaches me daily that his bond to me is stronger than I could possibly fathom – if I leave the room for a second, he shrieks. He continues to shriek until I return. He might even shriek a few more times out of frustration once I come back – just to make sure I know how anxious and displeased he is feeling.
Monkeys, elephants, corvids and other birds, baboons, dogs, cats, rabbits, and other animals all exhibit a deep range of emotional and mental motion that in many ways mimics our own. In fact, the only real difference between human brains and animal brains is our extra-large front cortex – which scientists today now believe evolved because otherwise, we were totally defenseless in the midst of our non-human planet-mates with claws, fur, fangs, and senses superior to ours in every way.
But our limbic or “emotional” brain, our very brain cells, are quite similar to those of animals.
I can’t find the quote now, but a few years ago I was reading a magazine article about loneliness. In the article, the author reminded readers to remember we are never alone – we have nature, the trees, the sun, the birds, the insects, the animals – while we may discount their friendship or even fail to see they are there, they accompany us on our journey just the same.
Personally, I find myself greatly reassured and comforted to know I share much more in common with the birds and animals in my life than I have ever before perceived. Friends are everywhere – friends who are willing and able and always on call to share my laughter, my love, my grief, and my potato chips.
Today’s Takeaway: What is your “take” on animal intelligence? Do you find new research pointing to similarities between human and non-human brain function, biology, and personality reassuring or unsettling (or a bit of both)? What species most intrigues you – why do you think this is?