On birds watching.

On birds watching.

In jail recently, we were talking about birds.

“Yeah, my grandfather had something like a thousand chickens, had them running all through the yard,” somebody said.  “And there was this one chicken, he was a mean one.  I was kind of afraid of it, strutting around like he owned the place.  So my grandfather, he told me to kick it.”

“Well, I did, but that only made things worse.  I didn’t make him scared, I just made that chicken hate me.  So after that, anytime we went to visit my grandfather’s place, that chicken would be there, waiting for me.”

“My parents, my brothers and sisters, everybody would get out of the car, but the chicken wouldn’t bother them.  He’d be sitting there, staring, just waiting for me.  And when I finally got out I had to run, every time, sprinting to my grandfather’s front door before that chicken got me.”

“They live a long time, too!  I had, like, five or six years of that!  And still to this day, anytime my mom sees a video or a picture of somebody running from a chicken on Facebook, she’ll tag me in it.  Like, ha ha ha, remember that?”

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“Maybe you didn’t kick him hard enough,” somebody suggested.  “Cause we used to have chickens, and I had to go into the coop sometimes, and the roof of it was real low to the ground, so I had to crouch in there like this, and one chicken would always strut up to me like it was going to start something.”

“Well, it did that every time for a few months, till one day it got in my face and I just went BOOM, and I wrestled that little fucker to the ground.  And that chicken never messed with me again.”

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Birds can recognize individual humans. 

Biologist John Marzluff noticed that crows became wary of particular researchers after the crows had been captured and tagged.  In an experiment where researchers captured a half dozen crows while wearing a caveman mask, they found that the whole flock learned to respond to that mask as a threat.  Several years later, even crows who hadn’t seen the caveman’s initial misbehavior would shriek a warning when they saw that mask.  They’d been trained by their flockmates.

The caveman mask is on the left. On the right: a control mask.

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Between their intelligence and acute eyesight, birds can serve as passable oncologists.  Pigeons were trained with a set of slides from biopsies – a pigeon had to inspect each image and then choose a button for “cancer” or “not cancer”.  If the pigeon chose correctly, the computer would dispense a pellet of food.

(Human medical students are often mistreated during their training, forced to work grueling hours with few breaks.  The pigeon trainees were also mistreated – to ensure that they valued each food pellet, the pigeons were starved during the experiment.  I’m 6 feet tall and about 150 pounds, but if I were participating in this study, I’d be kept at 127 pounds – eighty-five percent of my “free feeding” weight.)

Pigeons learned to diagnose biopsies with 80% accuracy.  A team of eight pigeons voting together could diagnose biopsies with 99% accuracy

The team of pigeons was just as good as a human oncologist, and far better than computerized image analysis.

You can buy 50 pounds of pigeon pellets for under $10.  That’d give you enough rewards for a flock of half-starved pigeons to diagnose thousands of patients.

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We used to think that an entire class of vertebrates had gone extinct – the dinosaurs.  But we now know that birds are dinosaurs. 

Several species of dinosaurs/birds are gone – millions of years have passed since tyrannosaurs or velociraptors roamed the earth.  But their lineage has continued.

When I was growing up, people often remarked that dinosaurs were clearly dim-witted creatures because they have such small cranial cavities.  There was not much room for brains in their skulls! 

But contemporary dinosaurs/birds have small brains, too, and many are extremely intelligent.  They can chase kids who’ve crossed them.  They can diagnose cancer.  They can make tools, solve logic puzzles, and guess what other animals are thinking.

All with minuscule brains!

When biologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel investigated the brains of various species, she found that the number of neurons in a brain typically correlates with cognitive capacity.  More neurons makes for a smarter critter!

The physical size of a brain doesn’t tell you how many neurons will be in a brain, though.  A bigger brain might just have bigger neurons

As it happens, birds’ brains are constructed better than our own.  Crows and parrots pack neurons into a brain more densely than we do, like the difference between old IBM mainframes and modern telephones.  Pigeon brains are better than ours at parallel computing, like the difference between a hypothetical quantum computer and your current laptop.

We can outsmart crows, parrots, and pigeons, but only because our raw neuron counts are so high that we’ve not been surpassed by their superior designs.

We don’t know when dinosaurs/birds evolved their high neuron densities – well-designed brains might be recent innovations, or they might be millions of years old.  Ancient dinosaurs may have been far more intelligent than we thought.

Yes, they still went extinct, but you can’t blame them for succumbing to climate change.  And it’s not like they caused the climate change that killed them.

Future archaeologists might judge humans to be more foolish than any stegosaurus.

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We humans have huge numbers of neurons in our cerebral cortex.  We are blisteringly clever.  We’ve made all variety of tools, languages, and complex social structures.  Yes, crows also have tools, language, and complex social structures, but in each category, human achievements are even more complex.

A crow tool is typically a hooked piece of stick.  We built telephones.

Well, humans collectively built telephones.  I couldn’t sit down and build one from scratch.  If I were to make a tool while out hiking, it’d probably be a hooked piece of stick.

Still, our best achievements are pretty incredible. 

But we’ve also brought our species to the brink of extinction.  Through overpopulation and excessive exploitation of the planet’s trapped resources, we’re making our world less habitable. 

Tyrannosaurus ruled this planet for a few million years.  Humans have been a dominant species for only a hundred thousand years – a few percent of T-Rex’s reign.  With the current pace of climate change, scientists soberly discuss the possibility that we’ll reap apocalypse within a hundred more years.

Measured by reign, we might prove 20-fold less successful than those giant birds.

On hunting.

I saw many posts on the internet from people upset about hunting, specifically hunting lions.  And eventually I watched the Jimmy Kimmel spot where he repeatedly maligns the Minnesota hunter for shooting that lion, and even appears to choke up near the end while plugging a wildlife research fund that you could donate money to.

And, look, I don’t really like hunting.  I’m an animal lover, so I’m not keen on the critters being shot, and I’m a runner who likes being out and about in our local state parks.  Between my loping stride and long hair, I look like a woodland creature.  I’m always nervous, thinking somebody might accidentally shoot me.  Yeah, I wear orange during the big seasons, but I still worry.

But I thought Jimmy Kimmel’s segment was silly.

141202150915-lion-exlarge-169For one thing, he’s a big barbecue fan — you can watch him driving through Austin searching for the best — and pigs are a far sight smarter than lions.  Plus, most of the lions that people hunt had a chance to live (this isn’t always true — there are horror stories out there about zoos auctioning off their excess animals to hunters, which means they go from a tiny zoo enclosure to a hunting preserve to dead — but in the case of Cecil it clearly was.  He was a wild animal who got to experience life in ways that CAFO-raised pigs could hardly dream of).  Yes, Cecil suffered a drawn-out death, but that seems far preferable to a life consistently horrific from first moment to last.

Most people eat meat.  And humans are heterotrophs.  We aren’t obligate carnivores the way cats are, but a human can’t survive without hurting things — it bothers me when vegetarians pretend that their lives have reached some ethical ideal or other.  Especially because there are so many ways you could conceptualize being good.  I have some friends who raise their own animals, for instance, and they could easily argue that their extreme local eating harms the world less than my reliance on vegetables shipped across the country.

I think it’s good to consider the ramifications of our actions, and I personally strive to be kind and contribute more to the world than I take from it, but I think it’s most important to live thoughtfully.  To think about what we’re doing before we do it.  Our first priority should be taking care of ourselves and those we love.  I don’t think there’s any reasonable argument you can make to ask people to value the lives of other animals without also valuing their own.

That said, if people are going to eat meat, I’d rather they hunt.  We live in southern Indiana.  Lots of people here hunt.  In general, those people also seem less wasteful — hunters are more cognizant of the value of their meals than the people who buy under-priced grocery store cuts of meat but don’t want to know about CAFOs or slaughterhouses.

Hunters often care more about the environment than other people.  They don’t want to eat animals that’ve been grazing on trash.  Ducks Unlimited, a hunting organization, has made huge efforts to ensure that we still have wetlands for ducks and many other creatures to live in.

To the best of my knowledge, Tyson Foods hasn’t been saving any wetlands lately.

Hunters generally don’t kill off entire populations.  And they don’t pump animals full of antibiotics (which is super evil, honestly.  Antibiotics are miracle drugs.  It’s amazing that we can survive infections without amputation.  And the idea that we would still those compounds’ magic by feeding constant low levels to overcrowded animals, which is roughly what you would do if you were intentionally trying to create bacteria that would shrug off the drugs, is heartbreaking.  There are virtually no medical discoveries we could possibly make that would counterbalance the shame we should feel if we bestow a world without antibiotics on our children’s generation.  See more I’ve written about antibiotics here).

"Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park (4516560206)" by Daughter#3 - Cecil. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cecil_the_lion_at_Hwange_National_Park_(4516560206).jpg

Sure, Cecil wasn’t shot for food.  I would rather people not hunt lions.  But lions are terrifying, and they stir something primal in most humans — you could learn more about this by reading either Goodwell Nzou’s New York Times editorial or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, in which she argues that humanity’s fear of predators like lions gave rise to our propensity for violence (a thesis I don’t agree with — you can see my essay here — but Ehrenreich does a lovely job of evoking some of the terror that protohumans must have felt living weak and hairless amongst lions and other giant betoothed beclawed beasts).

The money paid to shoot Cecil isn’t irrelevant, either.  It’s a bit unnerving to think of ethics being for sale — that it’s not okay to kill a majestic creature unless you slap down $50,000 first — but let’s not kid ourselves.  Money buys a wide variety of ethical exemptions.  The rich in our country are allowed to steal millions of dollars and clear their names by paying back a portion of those spoils in fines, whereas the poor can be jailed for years for thefts well under a thousand dollars and typically pay back far more than they ever took.

The money that hunters pay seems to change a lot of host countries for the better.  Trophy hunting often occurs in places where $50,000 means a lot more than it does in the United States, and that money helps prevent poaching and promote habitat maintenance.  Unless a huge amount of economic aid is given to those countries (aid that they are owed, honestly, for the abuses committed against them in the past), the wild animals will be killed anyway, either by poachers or by settlers who have nowhere else to live.  So, sure, I dislike hunting, but hunters are providing some of the only economic support for those animals.

And, look, if you think about all of that and you still want to rail against hunters, go ahead.  But if you’re going to denounce them, I hope you’re doing more than they are for conservation.  And I hope you’re living in a way that doesn’t reveal embarrassing hypocrisies — I’m sure any one of those pigs Jimmy Kimmel eats would’ve loved to experience a small fraction of Cecil’s unfettered life.

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Photo by Jessika.
Food at our house (taken by Jessika).

p.s. If you happen to be one of those people who can’t imagine living happily without eating meat, you should let me know and I’ll try to invite you to dinner sometime.  I love food, and I’m a pretty good cook.  I should be honest — it is a little bit more work to make life delicious if you’re only eating vegetables, but it definitely can be done.