Birds as friendly faces

A birder’s brain responds to photos of familiar bird species in a way that is, neurologically, “strikingly similar” to the way that anyone’s brain responds to photos of familiar human faces (Tanaka & Curran 2001): birders seem to use a similar strategy to recognize birds as everyone uses to recognize people they know. If you are a birder, this probably isn’t surprising; certainly, to me, recognizing a bird species feels similar to recognizing a friend. And it isn’t only birders: the study also looked at “dog experts”—which I did not know existed before I read this—and found the same pattern when those experts looked at photos of dogs. If you are passionate about models of cars or architectural styles or garden flowers, I wouldn’t be surprised if you experience the same thing.

(Bafflingly, the study reports that the photos it showed to the birders included “the robin, sparrow… oriole… [and] hawk,” none of which are actually individual species. Which sparrow, guys? Didn’t you talk to your birders at all while you were studying their brains?)

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The sparrow, obviously. (Rufous-collared Sparrow, San Jose, Costa Rica.)

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In praise of Canada Geese

Canada Goose in flight.

Canada Goose in flight.

I volunteer with an education program at a prison. Clear sight lines from the guard towers being essential in a prison, there isn’t much cover, so there aren’t many birds. I’ve seen House Sparrows and Mallards and pigeons. The inmates report that seagulls are prone to getting caught in the barbed wire that tops the fences. The inmates don’t have much sympathy for the seagulls, since they’ve had to try to protect Mallard ducklings from marauding seagulls in the past, generally unsuccessfully.

Recently I saw a Red-winged Blackbird and a Common Starling both trying to claim the same bit of fence as their own. I can’t imagine why they wanted the fence (perhaps so that they could listen in on our class and learn how to solve “3 is 60% of what?”, too?), but it was exciting to see them. Serious birders have state bird lists; I don’t have that, but I do have a mental prison bird list, and both of those species were firsts.

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If you meet a time-traveling ancient Egyptian, talk about birds

The next time you come across an ancient Egyptian mummy in a museum, rather than thinking of looming pyramids and cursed tomb robbers, consider this: that mummy was probably a better birder than you are.

Okay, I don’t know if the ancient Egyptians would have considered it “birding” – I doubt they maintained life lists. But they certainly knew their birds to a degree that I doubt many in the modern era could equal. The Oriental Institute’s exhibit “Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt” showcases just how thoroughly birds permeated every aspect of ancient Egyptian life. They painted birds and sculpted them, drew them in their writing as hieroglyphs, raised and shepherded and ate them, and saw their gods embodied in their forms.

Barn Owl sculpture. Owls were unusual in Egyptian art for being depicted face-on instead of in profile.Photo Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Barn Owl sculpture. Owls were unusual in Egyptian art for being depicted face-on instead of in profile, as most animals (including humans) were.
Photo by Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

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