While there is no scientific agreement about whether or not birds feel emotions, birders who watch their feathered friends can readily see evidence of bird emotions in their different personalities and behaviors. Birds cannot communicate their emotions directly to us and though behavior clues can be ambiguous, those behaviors can readily communicate a wide range of emotions to observant birders.
Pet Birds and Emotions
Pet bird owners have an opportunity that birders rarely see – they can bond extensively with their individual pets, and through those bonds they grow familiar with their birds' moods and emotions, from stress and loneliness to joy and excitement. That familiarity leaves no doubt that pet birds can and do feel emotions, but without as much intimate interaction with wild birds, it can be difficult to see the same emotional depth in backyard birds.
How Wild Birds Show Emotions
While the range of emotional expression of birds can be hotly debated, there are prominent emotions that can be seen in many wild birds.
- Love: Gentle courtship behavior such as mutual preening or sharing food shows a bond between mated birds that can easily be seen as love. Parent birds are just as caring toward their hatchlings, which may be a demonstration of parental love. While these emotions may not last beyond one breeding season or brood, they can be strong bonds nonetheless. Birds that mate for life may show love toward one another in many ways, including sharing companionship throughout the year just as human mates will.
- Fear: Frightened birds exhibit several behaviors that demonstrate their fear. Quick flight and escape is the most common reaction to fear – the same fight-or-flight response humans use – but other fear indicators include freezing in place, increased respiration rate and alarm or distress calls. These are all similar fear indicators to humans freezing in fear, accelerated heart rate and screams of fear.
- Anger: Anger is one of the emotions most commonly seen in birds. Angry bird behavior might include threatening postures, hisses or other intimidating noises and even lunges, wing slaps and other attacks. Backyard birders frequently see this type of behavior at feeders, and birds can also demonstrate anger in the field when their territory or nesting area is invaded.
- Grief: Grief is a complex emotion and just as all humans react differently when grieving, birds can also react differently, in many cases with behavior that may not be recognized as grief. For example, if a grieving bird were to shut down (denial), its behavior may appear unchanged. Birds have been documented as obviously looking for a lost mate or chick, however, and listless behaviors and drooped postures are common indicators of grieving birds.
- Happiness: Pleasure can be seen in birds through exuberant behavior such as singing when it is not necessary to attract a mate or defend a territory or the playful games of intelligent corvids. When birds are happy, they may also make soft purring calls or other noises that could be equated to a human humming in happiness.
Emotion or Instinct?
Bird emotions are not at all distinct, and there is much debate over whether behaviors that might be perceived as emotional are really heartfelt expressions or just instinctual behavior. For example, a pair of birds engaged in courtship behavior may no have any emotional connection to one another, but could simply be seeking the most viable mate to produce strong, healthy offspring. Similarly, other behaviors can also be defined in terms of a bird's survival – fear is necessary to evade predators, anger helps defend a territory or feeding area, grief is an attempt to recover the effort from a lost mate or chick and joy could simply be humans anthropomorphizing birds in human-like terms. The debate is two-sided, however; human emotional behavior has similar survival purposes in terms of choosing a mate, avoiding danger and staying healthy.
Using Bird Emotions to Be a Better Birder
Whether or not birds actually feel emotions, birders who can pick up on the subtle, emotion-like clues in bird behavior can take advantage of those clues to improve their birding skills.
- If birds seem happy with certain foods – eating it quickly before other foods are consumed, even becoming bold enough to be hand-fed with that food – offering more of it will attract more birds to the backyard.
- If birds are angry at the feeder and consistently fight or threaten other feeding birds, adding larger feeders or moving feeders further apart can help increase personal space and reduce birds' stress.
- If birds show fear, birders can back away and leave the birds in peace or look around for other potential threats, such as a nearby predator, a passing hawk or another object that might be causing birds distress.
Birds may or may not have emotions, but emotion-like behavior can provide fascinating insights into how birds act, and birders who carefully observe every bird they see can read emotional clues to learn even more about birds' lives.
Photo – Pigeons in Love © Peter Harrison