My friend, Tori, had a great idea, which is to provide a platform for conservationists (and anyone can be one!) to share their stories.
Here she states her goal:
“I want to give faces to the conservationists of the world. Their stories, their situations, the sacrifices they make to do this work, and the rewards of it. It’s not a revolutionary notion by any stretch, but we need to be part of the global conversation on environmentalism. We, as biologists, need to know our worth. We need to contribute to the wildlife blogs of the world, the authors and journalists shedding light on the work of scientists working to better the natural systems of the planet. Everyone can be a conservationist. I want to knit together a picture of what that means and could mean in the future. We need to engage with each other to enthrall others.
I sent her a story about one of my most memorable field experiences (which involves wolves near Yellowstone!). That story can be found here:
I recently wrote and recorded this song, so thought I’d share. Like almost all of my songs, I wrote this in order to think a situation through. I also made a video to accompany it, to help paint a clearer picture for those not between my ears!
There are a lot of rainstorms this time of year in Florida. Basically every afternoon. Luckily, I happen to enjoy the rain a lot, so felt inclined to create a metaphor that might cause the experience of rain to bring a smile to one’s face (to combat the ‘rain on your parade’ metaphor, and other dreary, similar ones).
While I wrote this song/poem I was thinking of one of my favorite poems, ‘Drunken Boat,’ by Arthur Rimbaud. Maybe you’ll love Arthur’s words as much as I do.
(In addition to trying to learn to understand the scrub-jay language, I’m trying to learn how to speak Spanish, which is why this title popped into my head. Yes, I can’t resist alliteration, and yes, I have discovered that I may need to find nests)
It is an early morning in April, and I know that scrub-jays are building nests. Not long after walking out into the scrub, I spot a potential nest-builder. The scrub-jay is perched atop a lone, dead tree that towers above the short scrub oaks below, watching for predators. I check the bird’s leg bands to verify who I’m looking at, and then wait to see if she or her ‘husband’ will show me any behavior indicating that they are building a nest.
If you imagine that working as a field biologist is constant excitement (crazier things have been imagined), then the reality may disappoint you. The usually relaxing, meditative quality of the work that I have chosen is precisely why I love my job. Currently, I get to spend a lot of time watching scrub-jays stoically gazing across their empire, waiting for them to teach me something.
I’m sure that some people who might read this post will wonder why the state of Florida would pay me to, among other things, find nests. The answer is that finding and monitoring nests is a great way to determine the reproductive success of any bird species. Identifying specific microhabitats in which birds like to build nests (say, like in the case of scrub-jays, beneath prickly vines) is a good way for land managers to know which conditions to create for birds that they want to attract. Another useful application of nest searching is to determine whether or not a given population of birds is a ‘source’ or a ‘sink.’ In other words, if one determines that all of the scrub-jays on their property are unable to fledge any young year after year due to, say, a very dense nest predator population, that property (a ‘sink’) may not be an ideal recipient location for translocated birds, because moving birds there would not provide much help for increasing the overall, state-wide and/or regional population. A population that is more likely to be a ‘source’ population, where conditions are better, is be a better choice for translocation. I’m monitoring nests primarily because we want to learn if translocation is an effective way to increase scrub-jay populations throughout the state.
After 15 minutes, I see the male scrub-jay fly up to the tree and hop up next to his mate. He quickly feeds her, then she flies away and he takes over sentinel duty. Courtship feeding, in my experience, seems to become more common around nest-building time. I walk in the direction that I saw her fly, to see if she provides any clues. I have trouble finding her, though finally hear the rapid jingling of her metal leg band as she itches her chin with a foot, like most dogs do. The male softly, gutturally calls from his perch. She calls back in the same way, saying, ‘I’m alright, honey. It’s just that weird human, again.’
I catch a blue blur in the corner of my eye as she flies north. Then, I hear a crashing sound that I recognize. What I hear, I am fairly sure, is the sound of her pulling palmetto fibers from a scrub palmetto.
Slowly, I walk toward the sound. Sure enough, one by one, she is pulling long fibers off of the palmetto plant. Because she is collecting fibers, I know that the pair are at least half way done building their nest. All of the sticks have been gathered, and they are now working on completing the soft, inner lining of their nest. I hope that she does not drop the fibers, like I’ve seen other birds do, before bringing them to the nest. Up to the top of a myrtle oak she flies. I’m ready to run…. Next, she flies up and lands beside her mate for a few seconds. Then, they both fly out of sight to the south as I sprint through the thick scrub, being smacked in the face by branches and maybe watched by rattlesnakes which think in their reptilian way how foolish I am for running through the scrub, when they could be anywhere. FYI, I don’t actually assume that rattlesnakes have a notion of ‘foolish,’ but it’s fun to imagine.
Scrub-jays almost always fly straight to the nest when they have nest material. So, by watching which way they flew, I know in which general direction the nest is located. However, I don’t know how far away it is, and it takes me about ten minutes to find the jays again. After 45 more minutes, I conclude that the scrub-jays have lost the mood for nest-building. Tomorrow, I’ll return….
And when I do return, it is not long before I see another bill-full of palmetto fibers being flown, this time to the west. I imagine the line and direction of their current flight, as well as their flight from the day before. Where the two lines cross, I know, is where the nest is. So, with the knowledge of approximately where their nest is, I climb a pine tree that is just sturdy enough to hold me. I scan over the scrub in the direction that I think that their nest is, waiting for them to return.
Like my co-worker said, I remember as I sway in the pine, nest-searching is a lot like hunting, though without killing. When I finally see the jays flying again toward their nest, I feel lucky that I can still harness my deep instincts and senses to accomplish daily tasks. After seeing the jays enter a sand live oak together, a part of me feels happy that I wasn’t offered the jobs which I had interviewed for that would have almost doubled my paycheck, but more than halved my opportunities to be out in the field. Outdoors, I know as I jump out of the pine, is where one can understand and feel the forces that created them and everything else. As I walk toward the nest, I feel lucky that circumstance has allowed me to experience first-hand the incredible behaviors of organisms like scrub-jays that have resulted from at least 14 billion years of interactions between living and non-living things.
The need to protect the life that is left is very obvious to me, so I feel very content helping to understand and protect scrub-jays. When wildlife disappears due to our actions, we will lose our link to ‘eternity,’ be fooled by technology, be denied of most of the feelings that we are capable of, and trapped in a miserable world that we are not suited to thrive in. Seeing scrub-jays in the scrub reminds me that there is a place for me, too, and that place is not on a highway or in a shopping mall. If I ever create a ‘nest,’ I know, I’ll have scrub-jays in mind.
The female scrub-jay slowly pokes her head out of the shrub where her nest is. She looks at me, then angrily pecks a narrow branch. I back away, and she calms down. A third bird, the pair’s offspring from the previous year, alights next to his mother, but is chased away by Dad. The ‘teenagers’ aren’t allowed close to the nest when it is being built, I’ve learned. When she is satisfied that I don’t know where her nest is, the female flies off to find more fibers, and the male follows. Quickly, before they return, I use my mirror to see how far along the nest is, mark the location with my GPS, and go to the neighboring territory, to look for another nest. All’s well in the scrub.
Unfortunately, though, all’s not always well in the scrub for scrub-jays. By June, the end of the nesting season, I’ve found almost 30 nests, and know very well how dangerous it is to be either an egg or nestling in a nest. The majority of nests that I monitor fail, mostly due to snakes such as this yellow rat snake:
One day, I was lucky enough to see a scrub-jay pulling the tail of a garter snake which was crossing the road. Repeatedly, the snake struck at the bold bird, until it was able to slither away from its hopping pursuer. Harassing snakes is a useful behavior if snakes eat your babies. If a scrub-jay cannot eat the snake that it is harassing, maybe their calls will attract a hawk which can. I cannot help but imagine that an adult scrub-jay which recently went missing may have gotten a bit too close to, say, a rat snake that it was mobbing. If so, that bird could not have died a more heroic death, so far as scrub-jays are concerned.
When I saw an alligator in the scrub, I was reminded that I, too, could be on the ‘menu.’ I know that being attacked by an alligator would be an exceptionally rare event. However, the presence of such ambush predators reminds me that I, too, am a natural thing which is vulnerable, which is best off paying attention to surroundings, and which could quickly become only energy that keeps something else alive. That knowledge is, you may be surprised to read, more comforting than anything else that I know. By knowing this, the pressure and incoherence of human-made concepts that suggest otherwise disappear. When I’m in the scrub, as I watch a young scrub-jay that has beaten the odds by escaping the snakes, crows, and raccoons, I’m reminded how unlikely life is. I remember to appreciate the fact that, so far, I’ve escaped the alligators and the less literal but equally dangerous ‘predators’ that pretend not to be, which just might have a first and last name. In other words, I remember to appreciate my short time in the air, as I watch the young scrub-jay fly by.
Note: Before reading this, you may want to check out ‘Part 1’ to know what happened last time on Jays of Our Lives, which is a mini-series about some of my experiences studying Florida Scrub-Jays.
The morning after we released Black/Silver – Hot Pink/Light Blue (the male scrub-jay) and Black/Silver – Red/White (the female scrub-jay), I drove through the scrub just after sunset and parked near where I thought the birds would be. I took out my radio receiver and antenna, then scanned 360 degrees to see if I could detect a signal from either of the birds, who each had unique frequencies that I could enter into the receiver. From the same point, standing on top of my 1996 Ford Bronco, I was able to detect a signal from both Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White. However, just as I had left them the previous afternoon, they were separated. I hoped that they had both made it through the night, and that neither transmitter was in the stomach of a snake or owl. Being alone in a new place is dangerous for scrub-jays, just like it is dangerous for people.
I decided to look for Hot Pink/Light Blue first, and picked up a strong signal about 200 meters to the northwest of where we had released him and his mate. Soon, I found him alone in the scrub, and followed him for over an hour as he gradually moved to the east. It was interesting to see that he intermittently foraged and then acted as a ‘look out’ for his mate who was not there, which is likely a behavior that is genetically hard-wired and/or a semi-learned habit that is hard to break. This ‘sentinel behavior’ is a somewhat unique behavior utilized by scrub-jays, which is a good way for at least one member of the group to always have an eye on the sky, searching for hawks. It was a bit sad to think that no one was looking out for Hot Pink/Light Blue.
He reached the eastern edge of the block of scrub that we were in, where it met an area of very short scrub that was growing back after recently being burned. Across the future scrub-jay habitat, I was sure that he could see the scrub which he had been chased from the day before. As I watched him, I could not help but wonder if he knew that southeast was the direction that he should fly to find his mate. I also wondered if he was hesitant to fly across that area because of the danger of encountering the group of three scrub-jay neighbors, who could see and chase him again. To my slight disappointment, I watched as he gradually moved back into the scrub to the west, away from his mate, unnaturally alone.
The next day, the same cycle repeated itself. Both the male and female foraged alone, noticeably furtive and more quiet than usual, probably to avoid the attention of neighbors.
I told another biologist, who has studied the resident jays for over ten years, and color-banded most of them, about the situation. He suggested that maybe Hot Pink/Light Blue ‘has his eye on’ a neighboring female, one of the birds that had chased him away from his mate. The female that he described was a ‘helper’ in the group of three (the other two were her parents) immediately to the south of where Hot Pink/Light Blue was hanging out. It seemed that maybe I was watching a divorce, possibly caused by Hot Pink/Light Blue’s interest in a ‘younger woman.’
On the third morning after we released the pair, I tracked down Hot Pink/Light Blue and was surprised to see that another scrub-jay was with him. My first thought was: the ‘younger woman.’ I moved closer, and after losing both of the birds several times in scrub oaks, saw that the unknown bird was Red/White! She had apparently made the flight through ‘hostile territory’ and had found her ‘husband.’ On the next morning, I found them both back very near to the release cage, where she had stayed originally, quietly foraging. It seemed that she had tracked him down and brought him back, like ‘balls and chains’ tend to do. Kidding and anthropomorphizing aside, I’ll admit, I was a bit relieved that I did not help to cause a scrub-jay divorce.
Just over a week after we released Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White, I couldn’t detect either of their signals. I drove completely around the 40-acre block of scrub that they had been hanging out in, stopping and standing in the bed of my truck (which was easier than standing on the top of a Ford Bronco). With the extra height, I could increase the range at which I might detect them to about a ½ mile, but still, no signal. For the past week, they had been daily driven out of the scrub into tall pine trees to the east by both of the neighboring groups. Apparently, the neighboring groups claimed a lot more territory than we had thought. It appeared to me that Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White had decided that it was time to find a new home. They could have basically gone anywhere looking for scrub, and it was up to me to figure out where. I knew that the public forest that I was working in consisted of over 27,000 acres. Therefore, I hoped that they decided to settle near to a road within the forest, so that I could detect and find them. If they settled on private land, which is interspersed throughout the forest to the north, and very near to where we released the birds, I knew that that would complicate things. However, before beginning a ‘wild scrub-jay’ chase, I decided to walk south in the direction that I had seen them go before, after being chased by their neighbors. I waved the antenna around, hoping to hear a beep. Nothing, nothing, nothing but static at three different spots. It was about time to start driving around the forest, searching for a signal, I thought. Because I wasn’t looking forward to doing that, I walked a bit further south and tried one more time to search for a signal. Just barely, I could hear the beeping of Red/White’s transmitter!
At about that time, I received a phone call from another person who is a part of the project. He wanted to see how the jays were doing. So, we met and walked south together. Through long-leaf pine forest, which is not good scrub-jay habitat, we went toward the signal, which gradually got stronger. Finally, 0.75 miles south of where I initially picked up the signal, we spotted our birds. They were dispersing, and made long flights punctuated by short periods of rest in small clearings amongst the tall forest. If they found a nice area of scrub, we knew, that could become their new home. I happened to know that it would be another mile to the south before they found new scrub, and just when I was beginning to think that they would end up there, they changed directions and began moving west. We followed them a mile to the west, and then a mile to the north, until finally they reached scrub that was about a mile to the west of where they had been released. Maybe unwittingly, maybe not, they had gone around five groups of scrub-jays and ended up in unoccupied scrub. It seemed like they had found a new home.
The next day, however, they met new neighbors who were as unwelcoming as the first two groups which they had met. They were driven to the north into unoccupied scrub, and after spending two days there went back a mile to the east, near their release cage. Quite the adventure they had! Considering that scrub is a habitat that can quickly be changed, due to fire, say, or due to the scrub-oaks growing too tall for the liking of scrub-jays, it is probably good for scrub-jays to become familiar with their surroundings. By becoming familiar with where other scrub is, a scrub-jay group can find a new home when they need to. So, maybe the adventure that I was lucky enough to witness wasn’t for naught.
About a month after their adventure, I was with Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White in the morning. As usual, I followed them around, marked their locations, and noted their behaviors. With my binoculars, I saw that several palmetto fibers were in the bill of Red/White. Despite their apparent trouble settling in, I thought, they must be building a nest!
Nest searching season had arrived, for both me and predators. Will I be able to find any nests, or will the clever jays out-wit me? What predators are lurking in the scrub? What potential predator’s tail do I see a scrub-jay pull? What predator do I see in the scrub which could eat me?
Find out nest (I mean next) time on Jays of Our Lives!
Working with Florida Scrub-Jays is far more entertaining than any soap opera I’ve seen (admittedly, I have not seen many). Being a biologist who studies scrub-jays, though, naturally causes one to compare a day’s work to witnessing a soap opera, considering the drama that is seen every day. I have heard the phrase, ‘Jays of Our Lives’ used independently by a couple of my co-workers, in reference to the popular soap opera, ‘Days of Our Lives.’ So, I thought that I would describe some of what I have seen! I will do so in a series of posts, highlighting some of the interesting events and/or dramas that I have witnessed in the scrub, usually in relation to scrub-jays.
First off, you should know that Florida Scrub-jays are, appropriately, based on their name, only found in Florida. They are well-adapted to survive in ‘scrub,’ which primarily consists of oak species that are less than 2.5 meters tall. Florida is called ‘the lightning capital of the world,’ which historically caused regular wildfires, therefore maintaining habitat conditions that scrub-jays depend upon. However, we human beings have suppressed natural fire cycles and have converted much scrub habitat into housing developments, etc. Thus, Florida Scrub-jays are federally recognized as being ‘threatened’ due to the isolation of their existing habitats, which makes movement from one patch of habitat to the next very difficult for these birds that have short wings and a natural tendency to stay put. Therefore, I am part of a team that has been working to experimentally translocate these birds, so that we can understand if doing so will be an effective way to protect their genetic diversity (which is crucial step towards protecting scrub-jays from extinction). My job, as an employee of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is primarily to monitor how the birds we moved are doing. So, I get to spend a whole lot of time with scrub-jays!
You should also know that Florida Scrub-jays are ‘cooperative breeders,’ which means that offspring (most of the time) stick around to help their parents raise their siblings. Sound familiar? We humans, of course, have a similar life strategy. Just over 3% (or maybe slightly more, estimates vary) of bird species are currently known to be cooperative breeders. A similar percentage of mammals (humans are mammals) breed cooperatively. Therefore, both humans and scrub-jays are in the minority in this regard. Also, scrub-jays are in the ‘Corvid’ family, which includes ravens and crows. These birds have been described as ‘primates of the bird world,’ due to their large brains and impressive intelligence (see another post: ‘Bird Flew By: Thoughts on Consciousness’). This is yet another reason that these birds are similar to us humans. So, yes, scrub-jays are special! Of course, every species is special in some way….
Most of the birds that we are studying are uniquely banded so that we can tell who is who. Here is a picture of a color banded Scrub-jay:
Also, most of the birds that we moved to the new location have radio transmitters on them, so I can always find them (assuming that they have not gone on an adventure). Because of the transmitters and color bands, I can know ‘who is dating,’ ‘who is arguing,’ ‘who has died,’ and all of that other stuff that some people like to watch soap operas to see.
So, now that I have the background information out of the way, I will begin the story of Black/Silver – Hot Pink/Azure (a dashing male) and Black/Silver – Red/White (a beautiful female).
This pair is tough. We know that they have been together since 2013, and that Hot Pink/Azure is at least 6 years old and Red/White is at least 4 years old. Before they were translocated together, over 80% of their territory was deemed mostly useless to them by people who were trying to promote sand pine growth so that the pulp of these tress can later be harvested. The habitat that we moved them to is, as far I as I can tell, much better for scrub-jays than the habitat that they were taken from. We housed them in a cage for just under 36 hours before releasing them, so that they could become somewhat familiar with their surroundings before trying to settle in.
Initially, they refused to leave the cage, and stayed a night longer than we had wanted them to. When they finally did leave the cage, I followed them, and was pleased to see that they were behaving normally. Like usual, they were taking turns watching out for each other, while the other bird foraged. They did not seem to be bothered by their transmitters (no pulling on the antenna, no difficulty flying). All seemed well, until, 30 minutes after release, they wandered into the territory of another scrub-jay group. This was going to happen sooner or later, but luckily, I was there to see what happened. After I heard the first territorial calls, I saw Hot Pink/Azure and Red/White flying back towards the cage, with two other birds, a father-daughter pair, in hot pursuit. Soon, three other birds (a breeding pair and their helper) from a neighboring territory joined the chase, which noisily lasted for over an hour. Eventually, I saw Hot Pink/Azure, the male, chased to the northwest while Red/White was chased to the south. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, 40 minutes, passed. I was surprised, and a bit worried, to see that the pair were not reuniting. Because of their radio transmitters, I could tell that they were separated by about 400 meters. I needed to go check on another pair that we had recently released, so I had to leave. When I returned a couple hours later, they were still separated. They both, it seemed, were hiding alone, in foreign land, with hostile neighbors.
Will they reunite? Will they be able to form their own territory? Will they fly away and leave me with no idea where they went? Will they make a nest and lay eggs?
I recently watched the 2014 documentary called “Virunga.” Virunga National Park, nearly as large as Yellowstone National Park in the U.S., is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and protects one of the last strongholds of the mountain gorilla. At this park, rangers daily risk their lives to protect the largest remaining population of mountain gorillas from poachers (there are less than 800 wild mountain gorillas left worldwide). Over 140 rangers have been killed protecting the gorillas and other wildlife in the past 20 years. This inspiring documentary tells the story of a small group of brave and persistent people (the park director, rangers, gorilla rehabilitators, and a journalist) attempting to expose the corruption and collusion that threatens life in the park. An oil company attempts to undermine the safety of people and wildlife residing in and near the park by extracting oil from beneath Lake Edward. A rebel army, apparently in cooperation with the oil company, attempts to take control of the park. Despite the immense danger, including an assassination attempt, the small group of conservationists stand firm and try to document what’s happening, with the hope that people like you would see and care enough to make a difference.
I found it profoundly touching when André Bauma, the gorilla orphan rehabilitator, said in his heavily accented voice, full of resolve, as the rebel army was approaching to take over the park: “I feel obliged to stay with the gorillas here. You must justify why you are on this Earth. Gorillas justify why I am here.”
I think that all conservationists can relate to that statement.
For those of you who may be feeling discouraged about the reality of immoral and corrupt politicians who threaten to exploit the natural environmental upon which we all depend, who may be feeling that there is nothing that you can do about it, I hope that this documentary will provide you with some inspiration. Organization and resolve can go a long way to combat corruption, ignorance, and selfishness.
This documentary is available on Netflix, and probably on the internet elsewhere. If, after watching, you feel that you would like to make a donation to the park, you can do so at:
A little of your money goes a long way in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as overviewed below, from the Virunga National Park website.
Where Does Your Donation Go?
By donating, you will become an integral part of the effort to save one of the Earth’s most special treasures. There are few places where a financial gift can have such a meaningful impact. Here are some examples of what your money can do:
$8 – A pair of new boots for a ranger
$32 – Funds a ranger for one day (includes family health insurance)
$50 – One month of support for the widow and children of a Fallen Ranger
$150 – Two weeks of food and supplements for an orphan gorilla
$300 – One hour of flight time for an anti-poaching patrol
$500 – One day tactical elephant protection operation
$1000 – Comprehensive sweep and removal of deadly snares in the mountain gorilla sector
Nick Drake was an acoustic guitar player who made his music in the late 1960s and early 70s. He lived a short life, and relatively few people discovered his music while he was alive (considerably more have discovered him since his death). In this song, which is one of my favorites by him, he seems to suggest that birds are creatures that think, and not only think, but think deeply (and experience consciousness):
Here are the words that I am referring to, in regard to avian philosophizing:
Bird flew by
And wondered, wondered why
She was wise enough to stay up in the sky
From there she could wonder
For the reason
What’s the point of a year
Or a season
‘Wisdom’ is attributed to this bird that is flying in the sky, and she even has existential thoughts. As someone who has spent years studying birds, and ‘wondering why’ about many things, I’ll admit that I doubt that any bird wonders ‘what is the point of a year or a season?’ But maybe they will someday… The lyrics in this song seem to ‘anthropomorphize,’ which is to attribute uniquely human characteristics to non-human animals. I feel fairly sure that Nick Drake didn’t think that birds actually wonder like the bird in the song does, as art does not need to represent reality. However, the song stimulated some thoughts in me that I’ll share with you.
No human can know for sure what a bird does or does not think, though for anyone who pays close attention to birds and other animals, it is obvious, based upon their behaviors, that at least some species do in fact think (imagine your dog or cat). Take a look at this short video showing a bird who modifies a tool that did not originally work, in order to gain access to a food item:
That bird, in my opinion, was obviously thinking, and possibly in a way that I could relate to—I think that the bird knows that it is something (and is therefore a self-aware something) that wants food.
It has long been assumed by many animal behaviorists that animals (including human beings) are, as Thomas Huxley coined, ‘automata,’ which is a machine that is driven exclusively by forces (genetics, past and current environmental conditions) that it cannot control. This assumption appears to be true, so far as I can see, except that I do not understand how consciousness (the ability to be self-aware) fits into the equation, an uncertainty which could undermine the validity of the assumption. In fact, consciousness is in my opinion the most inspiring, dependable (if I’m thinking, it’s there), and greatest mystery that I have encountered. I will be thinking about it for as long as I am conscious. Consciousness could be (and some people say definitely is) just another natural process that we have no control over. However, it is fascinating to me that self-awareness does not seem to be necessary, and yet it does exist. By ‘not necessary,’ I mean from an evolutionary perspective, as it does seem entirely possible that molecular machines which we call organisms could be assembled which reproduce and survive based entirely on stereotyped responses (a stereotyped response is a reaction that requires no thought, and happens automatically in response to a certain stimulus). Such a thoughtless creature is the sort of identity-less, stereotyped machine that many people, it seems to me, assume that non-human animals (which aren’t their pets) are. But I don’t think that that is, in many cases, true! I believe that it feels a certain way to be, say, a moose, or a bat. I also think that at least some vertebrates (animals with a backbone), including mammals and birds, experience some kind of consciousness, as it seems extraordinarily narrow-minded to assume that human beings are the only conscious animal on planet Earth. I find this thought of consciousness in other animals to be liberating!
Why liberating? Well, I occasionally find myself falling into a Dustin-centric trap. That is, I find myself assuming that the way I see things is simply the way it is. By thinking so, inescapable doom and gloom, for example, can become the definition in my mind of our universe on a given day when that is, in fact, ridiculous. It helps to remind myself that thousands of other organisms (there are at least 40,000 other organisms on Earth that are so similar to us that they also have a backbone) are experiencing (to some degree) the same Earth in an entirely different way than I am, in a way that I could not even comprehend. It is a relief to know that the universe isn’t about me. Colors, scents, fields (like magnetic), and other external stimuli that I cannot detect shape the lives, and probably thoughts, of the other animals that we as humans share this planet with. How different would it be to be a conscious dolphin than a conscious human? I cannot imagine!
Some animals, apparently, think because an animal that can think is often better off from an evolutionary perspective than an animal that cannot think (except, for example, when climate-changing technology, including nuclear weapons, are developed in conjunction with selfish, ignorant users). One passes on more genes with the aid of intelligence, and intelligence (the ability to use information) has apparently led to consciousness in some animals. Birds in the family Corvidae (crows, ravens, magpies, and jays) have been compared to primates (humans are primates) in regard to their advanced intelligence.1 It seems hard to believe that Corvids possess the intelligence that they do without also having some level of consciousness, and harder to believe that chimpanzees, which share about 99.7% of their expressed DNA with human beings, are not conscious.
When a bird flies by, it is nice to remind myself that my thoughts cannot be definitely known by it, just as its thoughts cannot be definitely known by me. It is estimated that there are 100 billion stars in our average-sized galaxy, and near each might be the potential for thinking organisms, possibly similar to us. Further, there are an estimated 10 trillion galaxies in our universe, and maybe an infinite number of other universes, all of which could be brimming with conscious beings. About 95% of the matter/energy in our universe is, at the moment, entirely indescribable to the scientists who have tried to study it. In other words, it is a mystery. I cannot help but wondering how this so-called ‘dark’ matter/energy relates to consciousness, and how it might affect the ‘automata-like’ nature of living organisms, possibly providing a sort of ‘freedom’ that many brain scientists insist, I think prematurely, is an illusion. Further, the matter that we consist of, at a very small level (quantum-scale, i.e. atoms, electrons, etc.), interacts in a way that scientists can somewhat describe, but don’t understand, which may impede our ultimate understanding of how consciousness works, given that matter apparently creates ‘mind’ and we are unsure why matter interacts as it does. Maybe someone in our galaxy has already figured out the answers to these questions…
Speaking of thinking-things in other places (planets, solar systems, galaxies, universes, etc.), they would probably be able to understand my thoughts far less than the bird that flies by can. Actually, I think, I wouldn’t even be recognized as a thinking thing by such distantly-related thinkers, somewhat like most people assume that plants have no level of intelligence (a notion which some scientists are currently challenging). If the ‘multi-verse’ (infinite universes) that some scientists think exist combines to create, say, a brain of an organism that thinks, that organism would probably understand its thoughts about as much as I do my own (and might appreciate the mystery). This is an important reminder, for me at least, to appreciate the awesomeness of reality, which can be enriched if one considers the many different ways of seeing the same world by co-inhabitants. Such knowledge helps me to remember to interact kindly with other people who believe slightly different things than I do (that’s the most difference that there can really be between human beliefs, in the ‘big picture’). It also reminds me how similar we humans are, and how we need to come together, embrace our unity, expand our consciousness, and do our best to avoid destroying our chance at life. Such destruction, I think, will happen sooner rather than later if we pretend that the universe is as we want it to be rather than as it is, if we choose ignorance rather than knowledge. The ability to be conscious is an incredible opportunity that we have, and I think that we should all ‘look’ while we can, so that others here can see, too.
Ultimately, I think, a bird flying by has approximately as much of a chance of really understanding consciousness, or whether or not there is more than one universe, as I do. But it sure is fun to think while being conscious, and I feel comfort knowing that I am not alone in doing that.
Emery, N. J. The Mentality of Crows: Convergent Evolution of Intelligence in Corvids and Apes. Science306, 1903–1907 (2004).