For the Birds Radio Program: Anthropomorphism

Original Air Date: April 8, 1996

What’s wrong with attributing human qualities to birds? Maybe nothing. (3:46) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


It’s hard to be completely objective about bird behavior. People have attributed human qualities to birds since earliest times. But one of the most important lessons to take from studying bird behavior is how to observe actions objectively. A fanciful person watching a robin on the front lawn might write, “The hungry robin ran happily on the lawn, stopped to listen for a worm, and when it heard one it got excited, reached into the grass, grabbed it and flew away to eat it in privacy.” Someone trying to be more scientific might counter, “The robin ran five steps on the lawn, stopped, cocked its head for eight seconds, and pulled a worm out of the soil. I’m not sure if it knew where the worm was by seeing it, hearing it, or feeling the worm’s vibrations with its feet. It carried the worm in its beak to the maple tree where its nest was, but the leaves were too thick for me to see whether it ate the worm itself or fed it to its mate or babies.”

Gradually, as people study birds, we learn that bird behaviors and qualities are uniquely avian, not human, and that bird emotions are impossible for us to understand. Anthropomorphizing means attributing human characteristics to animals, which is unscientific. How can we say for sure that a singing bird is happy, rather than simply acting on an instinctive impulse that was triggered by an environmental or physiological factor?

However, it is equally unscientific to say that a singing bird is not happy, since we can’t know for sure that birds don’t feel the same happiness we do when we burst into song. We humans share much of our anatomy, physiology, and even biochemistry with birds, which are, after all, warm-blooded vertebrates with highly-developed senses and complex behaviors, as are we. We would have to sever all ties to our own natural heritage to ignore the many qualities and perhaps emotions that we have in common with birds. People who set humans completely apart from animals, claiming it’s impossible for animals to share human qualities or emotions, are perhaps guilty of “anthropocentrism,” as untestable and thus as unscientific as anthropomorphism.

Our aim in studying bird behavior is to develop objective skills to look at things scientifically while keeping an open heart about mysteries that are in the realm of poetry and art. A wild Pine Grosbeak and both Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets have on different occasions alighted on my hand when I was birding alone. The tiny ornithologist in my brain won’t let me even speculate about why these birds came to me, or looked into my eyes, but my heart can feel a reason. Once I came upon a fledgling Blue Jay in a park. I watched it hop on a playground slide, scoot up as high as it could get, and then slide back down. It did this seven or eight times while I watched and was still at it when I left. Most ethologists, the scientists who study animal behavior, agree that intelligent animals, such as jays and crows, really do play, perhaps to refine skills that may be useful for finding food or eluding predators. In the case of that baby Blue Jay, I prefer Mark Twain’s explanation. He wrote, “It ain’t no use to tell me a blue-jay hasn’t got a sense of humor, because I know better.”