The brain of a bird is a wondrous thing

23:32, Jul 19 2012

If it is true, as has recently been stated, that birds recognise individual human faces and voices; visual and aural discrimination, in other words, do worms then recognise individual beaks and birdcalls? Recognition: the most humanising of characteristics, or at least one of them, often at several removes. Anyhow, research published in Avian Biology Research states "that pigeons can reliably discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar humans, and that they use facial features to tell people apart." Fascinating stuff. That bird is really sizing you up! The same group of scientists in a separate study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, investigated the ability of carrion crows to differentiate between the voices and calls of familiar and unfamiliar humans and jackdaws, or "heterospecific individuals" (that is) those outside of their own species. But then it has already been proven that crows and jackdaws are the most intelligent of birds - I have seen footage of crows dropping nuts at intersections "knowing" that traffic will do the job of breaking them open. Now, that is delegating responsibility.

Wonderful word "heterospecific". But would it work as a pick-up line in a cocktail bar? "Hi, I'm a heterospecific individual, what's your name?" Maybe at an evolutionary biologist conference it would be more effective. Frivolous quips aside, I recall posting a package at the Newtown Post Office, inner west, Sydney, back in the early 1990s. Hardly a momentous event. The lady serving behind the counter recognised my name written on the back of the package. She did not otherwise know me from a bar of soap. But she had read a poem of mine in the Melbourne Age Monthly Review (long since folded) and told me she had really enjoyed it. It made my day. Recognition and endorsement in one.

It is such small gestures that indicate the job is worth doing after all. In the animal kingdom or should that be the lower animal kingdom - as we are supposedly at the apex of it - recognition is a two-way street; to identify both an enemy and a friendly presence. The mechanisms of survival at work. Or merely survival as reflex mechanism and little to do with cognition, and not an indication of intelligence, as we understand it? Maybe the post office worker's recognition of my name bolstered self-esteem or belief and further strengthened my resolve to continue with such creative endeavours, and in a sense, sharpened my survival instincts in at least one recognisable direction. Survival as an act of faith, as opposed to survival for its own sake. One method is involuntary, the other conscious choice.

I spent a few hours once in a truck while hitching from Belgium to Luxembourg not being able to speak a word of French, but the truck driver and myself understood each other perfectly. He handed me cans of beer and I said "merci" and "salute". We got along fine after downing half a dozen cans each.

But it didn't matter getting lost in central Europe because you can't really. It's generally considered too manicured. Or was until the Balkan Wars of the 1990s kicked in.

Anyhow, drinking beer with that Belgian truck driver illustrated the principle of basic communication without the need for "language". Recognition in a can of beer. Maybe I should patent that? Branding serves the same purpose the world over. That which is visual and common to all is now superseding language - the spoken and written word - to a large degree. The internet is the predominant visual medium associated with moving images; it is a bright and garish merry-go-round of info-grabs contained within a visual matrix.


Round and round it goes. A blur of colour and image designed to induce a form of amnesia so that one keeps coming back for more, because as soon as the information is accessed it is as quickly forgotten and continuously modified. Momentum without meaning. A form of hypnosis by which we are drawn back into a whirling carnival as if into a kaleidoscopic vortex.

And that is the illusion of the digital age. To promulgate not information so much as collective amnesia. In this medium we are relentlessly fed what we believe we need and recognise as necessary for our day-to-day survival.

Recognition as total illusion. A grotesque marketing ploy designed to create rapacious appetites for its own sake. We don't reflect. We consume. We are subject to and duped by electronic slight of hand. A ruse. The empty hype of Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere. Instant community without communication. What is it that we really need to know, when all is as substantial as will-o'-the wisp, that as quickly vanishes before the next simulacrum of urgency rears up like a dancing, spangled, neon-lit ghost?

Go ask the birds.

Stephen Oliver is the author of 16 volumes of poetry. He lived in Australia for 20 years and now resides in the King Country. He works as a freelance writer and voice artist.

Waikato Times