Animal Consciousness

December 9, 2016

I have recently decided to bring two small parrots into my home. They are celestial parrotlets, originally from Ecuador and Peru, and one of the smallest parrot species that can cohabit with humans. I call them Dandolo and Madeleine. They fit well into my apartment life in Oxford, despite the burgeoning beak-scars on my fingers, and they fill my weekends with rainforest twittering.

They are the first birds I have kept as pets – which is surprising, because my professional life is entirely concerned with birds. I am interested in how they learn, what they learn, and the behaviours that made them such a successful group of organisms. Birds are directly descended from dinosaurs, and have diversified into more than 10,000 species, far more than mammals, amphibians or reptiles. In the past, I have worked with crows and pigeons, and am currently focused on ducks.

Recently I’ve been investigating whether ducks can learn the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different’. First, my colleagues and I trained ducklings to recognise, for example, two red spheres, via imprinting. This is the process by which young birds can learn to identify and follow a moving object, normally their mother. The shapes were attached to rotating booms, and the ducklings followed them around like a mother duck. Then we gave them a choice between two more pairs of shapes: two red pyramids, and a red cube and a red rectangular prism.

To everyone’s surprise, the ducklings could spot the difference. Both sets of shapes were new to them, but the identical pair had a familiar ‘sameness’, and so the ducklings were drawn to it. They showed an equivalent preference for matching colours – when they were primed on two green spheres, for example, they picked a blue pair over a mixed violet and orange pair – and for difference itself, preferring mismatched shapes or colours when they had imprinted on a non-identical pair. Previously, only members of the big-brain club of clever animals had been shown to be able to grasp such abstract ideas: parrots, chimps, other primates, and crows. (Though, with extensive training, pigeons can do it too. A funny pattern in animal behaviour seems to be that whatever difficult task you devise will eventually be done by pigeons, trained through thousands of trials.)

But ducklings, it turns out, are the emperors of all clickbait. ‘Ducklings are capable of abstract thought,’ screamed the internet. Now, to the extent that ‘thought’ means ‘brain activity’, or ‘the identification of abstract representations’, that’s not necessarily wrong. But the intuitive reaction suggested that, for any creature to be able solve such a problem, it must consciously infer the relationship between each pair and compare them; it must possess a version of a tiny homunculus (or, perhaps, anatunculus) in its cute little head, furrowing its brow in consideration of which pair is the ‘same’ and which is ‘different’.

Even for seasoned scientists, it’s hard not to assume that animals are thinking. There was one clever duckling in the experiment that noticed the rotating booms above the testing chamber that controlled the stimuli he was meant to be watching, and spent the rest of the trial intently staring at the mechanism, looking contemplative. We named him Plato.

But the other ducks in the experiment didn’t have names, and with good reason. We referred to them using numbers and symbols. With some exceptions, this is a standard practice. It helps researchers maintain an intellectual distance and avoid anthropomorphism, which is a cardinal sin in the study of animal behaviour.

However, long-lived species used in repeated, cumulative behavioural experiments tend to be privileged with names: take Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee at the centre of a controversial, decades-long experiment in language acquisition, or the New Caledonian crows in a colony in Bavaria that I worked with a couple of years ago. In these instances, it is easier for a human researcher to keep mental track of animals’ histories when they are given names such as Jungle and Mango rather than S602 and D14.

The question of naming gets at the root of my confusion about my parrotlets. At home, feeding and training Dandolo and Madeleine, they are little people. They call to each other when I have one out of the cage for training because they miss each other; they chatter at me while I work because they are envious of my attention; they look at me with curiosity; they bite me because they are annoyed. In short, at home with my pets, I do what we all do: I anthropomorphise them to understand them.

Were I not an animal behaviour researcher, I would hardly notice; but because I am, I constantly ask myself: why do I treat my pets like thinking, conscious companions, and the ducklings in my lab like feathered robots? The reluctance of my field to engage seriously with animal consciousness is, I believe, holding back our efforts to truly understand their behaviour.

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