For the Birds Radio Program: Why birds? Alexander Skutch's explanation
Birds and Humans .
I’ve spent the past 25 years birding in just about every state in the union, and wherever I’ve gone, I’ve found a host of other birdwatchers-people fascinated by birds, many of whom aren’t the least interested in insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, or even our fellow mammals. I know a few insect collectors, and a lot of naturalists, but just about everyone I know who is the least bit interested in nature has a particular interest in and love for birds. What is it about birds that so fascinates us humans? My favorite ornithological writer, Alexander Skutch, has one possible answer in his book, “Helpers at the Nest.” He writes:
Except in anatomy and physiology, humans are in many ways more similar to birds than to other mammals. Birds are, like ourselves, mostly diurnal animals that depend more on seeing and hearing than upon smelling, which is of primary importance for the many nocturnal mammals. About 90 percent of avian species are monogamous, as humans ideally are, whereas only a small minority of other mammals live in monogamous pairs. Both birds and humans are skillful builders, each of constructions proportionate to their size and strength among other mammals only a few species, especially rodents, are builders. Even nonhuman primates with grasping hands make nothing comparable to the nests that birds build for breeding and sleeping, notably those [primates] permanently resident in warm lands, who enjoy much more time for such work than do migrants who must hurriedly rear large families in a short favorable season. Moreover, birds give strong indications of an aesthetic sense by their singing and beautiful plumage, which since Darwin has been attributed to sexual selection or mate choice. No other explanation is at present available for adornments so lavish that they appear burdensome, as though they might be eliminated by ordinary natural selection, as in many birds of paradise, pheasants, and others. These resemblances to ourselves make the stuffy of birds, especially the more social kinds, highly rewarding to thoughtful minds.
Skutch’s belief that birds have an aesthetic sense is controversial among ornithologists, but studies have demonstrated that female birds of many species choose as mates the brightest, most strikingly colored males–the same lovely birds that appeal to our own aesthetic sensibilities.
And as Skutch notes, thoughtful minds can’t help but see the similarities between birds and us. To look deep into the eyes of a tenth-of-an-ounce hummingbird and not see the spark of intelligence and humor is to be blind indeed.
But even as birds in many ways are the animals most like us, they are also the creatures that appeal most to our imaginations, with their beautiful songs and, above all, their flight. We even picture angels with bird wings. Birds give us a vision of how our lives could be and should be, and provide us with inspiring visions that led to the invention of airplanes, helicopters, and even helped perfect the design of football helmets. No wonder people prefer birds at their feeders to squirrels.