So far in 2021, the oddball former presidential candidate and bestselling author has tweeted almost two dozen pictures of birds, many annotated with a simple “Wow” or “No words.” My personal favorite: a multihued Anna’s hummingbird captioned, “Who how what decided what feathers will be red and what feathers will be blue and what feathers will be green?”
Then, a few days ago, Williamson revealed a long-standing concern about her beloved feathered friends: “I know people are going to laugh at me about this,” she wrote, “but it always strikes me how these birds never look in the mirror so they actually have no idea what they look like.”
Which got us wondering: Do birds know what they look like? Slate turned to a bird cognition specialist, Francesca Cornero, to learn where the science stands on avian self-awareness. Cornero, who has Eurasian jays look in the mirror as part of her research at the Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of Cambridge, explained to us just how complicated the question is to answer. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Marion Renault: Maybe we could start with this: Do birds have no idea what they look like?
Francesca Cornero: Well, no, that’s technically false. Most birds have very wide range of eyesight. You’ll notice that many have eyes placed on the side of their heads, or in front, and they tend to have very globular eyes. There’s research onto how widely around them they can see. Of course, it depends on the species and how their eyes are placed, but many, many birds can see actually a great part of their bodies directly. They can look at themselves much like we can and see all the parts of their bodies that are visible to them.
OK, so most birds have seen their own feathers. Do they understand that those feathers belong to them? Would they recognize themselves in a mirror?
That’s a very scientifically interesting question, and it’s a question that we don’t fully have an answer for yet. There’s research indicating that some species might be able to, but then there’s other research that suggests that that research might have alternative explanations. And then there’s research that some species maybe cannot recognize themselves in the mirror. So, depends on who you ask within the field—but in general, the jury is still out.
Let’s back up. To do that kind of research, do you just put a mirror in front of a bird and see what they do?
The main method is what we call the classic mirror mark test, which was actually developed for great apes. The way that it works is, yes, basically speaking, you put the animal in front of the mirror and you observe what they do.
But it’s a little bit more complicated than that. The premise is that you have an animal, and you allow them to become habituated to the mirror, so you allow them to explore the mirror and watch themselves do things for a very, very long period of time. Then, you mark the animal without them knowing, usually with paint or sometimes a sticker in a place that they can’t see directly. The only way they could see that they’ve been marked is to discover in the mirror, recognize that’s their own reflection, and then try to remove it.
Sounds simple. Why is the jury still out on whether birds can pass this test?
There are very few parts of the bird they actually cannot see directly, and it’s very hard to even create a mark that they won’t be able to feel on their feathers, which are very sensitive. And then you also have the problem that they don’t have hands—they have wings. So they can’t quite do the same thing that a chimpanzee would do, which is reach up to their forehead and pull off a sticker.
It’s also much harder, compared to apes, to even interpret birds’ behavior in a mark test because their visual systems are different. They have four color cones instead of three like we do, so we don’t really know exactly how they see colors. And [they can see movements faster than people do], so we don’t know how they really relate their movements in the mirror to themselves.
Is there any kind of bird that has clearly identified themselves in the mark test?
Not entirely. There are a few studies in which the conclusion was that the birds might’ve passed the mark test. This has happened with magpies and with Indian house crows. And the concern that other scientists have raised when they’ve tried to replicate those findings—when they try to do the same study again with the same species of bird—is that it really does seem like it might’ve been the birds being able to feel the stickers. And this is where it’s really hard to determine whether the birds did recognize themselves, in the studies in which they appear to.
And then there’s many other studies in crows, in jackdaws, and in keas and Goffin’s cockatoos. They don’t display the types of behaviors that we would expect if they were recognizing themselves. But that also doesn’t mean that we can conclude that they don’t.
It’s really difficult to ever determine. In animals, with this kind of test, you can’t just ask them, “Do you recognize yourself in the mirror?” And so it is quite complicated.
What would it mean if scientists could prove birds can recognize themselves in the mirror?
The question that tends to be brought in when you talk about mirror self-recognition is that of self-awareness. If an animal can recognize themselves in the mirror, that means that they’re self-aware, or they have some form of consciousness. And so that’s where a lot of the interest comes from, and that’s why a lot of research effort and resources have been put into it in birds and chimpanzees and gorillas and elephants.
I think there’s been, over time, a greater understanding of the fact that animals are not just little furry computers. They don’t behave mindlessly, if I can put it bluntly.
What else should we consider when we’re sitting there wondering whether the blue jay in Marianne’s tweet knows what it looks like?
Well, self-recognition isn’t only visual. Birds can call. They can sing songs. The research on whether they can recognize their own songs is way less familiar to me, but I believe that the answer is that they can, and they can recognize the songs of others. There are entire fields of research concerned with each aspect of this, like olfactory recognition, as it seems that dogs can recognize other dogs by smell. The complexity of nature is astounding.
Is there anything that’s surprisingly difficult about running the experiments you do with birds?
It’s not just a matter of getting a bird and giving it a test. It’s alive. They have their own lives going on. And it might be flying around and not want to sit in front of the mirror in this moment.
I’ve spent the pandemic covering the coronavirus as a reporter and an editor. Slate Plus helps support everything from explainers on how to keep yourself safe (without unduly panicking) to our Diaries series, about how the virus is affecting our lives. We couldn’t do it without you. —Shannon Palus, senior editor