Scientists Call For New Look At Birds

By Ingrid Newkirk

An international group of scientists is now calling for recognition of the intelligence of birds and revision of the language used to describe the brain anatomy of feathered animals.

The manifesto, printed this month in a scientific journal, should prompt us to take a cold, hard look at how birds are treated today in our own society. It comes at a time when the bird pet trade is selling “exotic” birds, like parrots, cockatoos, finches and macaws, to anyone, without so much as a booklet on care.

Parrots, in their natural homes, constantly preen each other, chatter from dawn to dusk, fly miles high in the skies together, play endlessly and share egg incubation duties. They are never alone, and if separated even for a moment they call wildly to their flockmates. Many species mate for life. Most birds will not even take a second mate if their first is lost.

Pet shops are in the money making trade. Few shop owners ever recognize the harm they are doing and bale out. So it is, then, that these lovely, once-lively, intelligent birds perch like pretty living toys, flightless and alone, until they are finally relegated to the basement, closet or crowded “sanctuary.” For?ask any rehabilitator or shelter worker?that is what invariably becomes of them when, denied all thatt they crave, they become neurotic and self-destructive, pulling out their own feathers, repeatedly bobbing their heads, attacking their keepers and screaming loudly and constantly for attention at a pitch that can fray any human’s nerves.

The singer James Taylor rescued a cockatoo from a hotel where the bird had been kept for years in a linen closet. He had pulled out his lovely cream-colored feathers and was so disturbed that he couldn’t seem to stop weaving back and forth. Mr. Taylor brought him to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), where, for the first time in years, he could stretch out, rest in the sunshine and enjoy the company of other birds. Eventually his feathers grew back and he relaxed and stopped his bizarre movements, but he remained a shadow of what he should have been.

Alex, a grey parrot who is the subject of a language study by Harvard’s Dr. Irene Pepperburg illustrates the scientists’ contention that birds, including thousands of species of songbirds, possess the ability to learn and teach languageā€”once thought only a human skill. Alex has learned to use many words and phrases in their proper context. One day the professor took him to a veterinary hospital for an operation. As she turned to leave, he called out, “Come here. I love you. I’m sorry. I want to go back.” He thought that he had done something wrong and was being abandoned.

The manifesto about bird intelligence should also prompt our legislature to update the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act?the only federal law ooffering any sort of protection for farmed animals. Most people are surprised to discover that the Act conveniently and entirely excludes chickens, turkeys and other birds raised for food. The more than nine billion chickens killed in the U.S. every year, who we now know can think and feel, and who certainly deserve better, spend miserable lives crammed into hot sheds or small cages. They need at least minimal protection. Like caged parrots and canaries, they have no control over any aspect of their lives; pain and fear comprise most of their experience. Witness the employees of a West Virginia slaughterhouse who were caught on PETA’s videotape stomping and kicking birds, slamming them against floors and walls, ripping their beaks off, twisting their heads off, spitting tobacco into their eyes and mouths, spray-painting their faces and tying their legs together “for laughs.” As the Reverend Al Sharpton says about what is done to them, “That’s foul!”

It is a tragedy for birds that it has taken science so long to recognize what seems obvious to anyone who has spent an afternoon watching birds in nature or who has rescued chickens from factory farms. But now that science has caught up, can we search our souls and ask if our treatment of birds matches the facts?

Ingrid Newkirk is president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510) and the author of “Making Kind Choices, Everyday Ways to Enhance Your Life Through Earth-and Animal-Friendly Living.”

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