It’s About Time Birds Got a Little Respect

As we celebrate the Year of the Bird, Liz Spikol on how our feathered friends are much smarter than we give them credit for.

Illustration by Kelsey Zigmund

Several years ago, I heard a story on public radio that made me cry. This isn’t unusual, of course. Between The Moth and StoryCorps, Reveal and Radiolab, I’m often a sodden, weepy mess by the time a show ends. But the program I remember so well wasn’t even especially sad. It was a 13-minute segment during which a tinnitus sufferer, Nubar Alexanian, spoke to his partially deaf young daughter Abby about their divergent auditory challenges.

Despite her own issues, Abby had trouble imagining what it was like to live with a nonstop ringing in the ears, so he described it for her — and the show’s canny audio engineers reproduced a clear, pure tone on top of the narration, so its intrusive nature could be fully understood.

Like Abby, I could not imagine how her father lived that way.

“That poor man!” I wept, alone in my car. “I would kill myself if I were him!” Typical Spikolian overstatement.

Funny thing is, not long after that This American Life segment, I got tinnitus myself. And despite the nonstop ringing, intermittent clicking and distortions in sound that tinnitus has plagued me with, I haven’t killed myself, or even considered it. Instead, I adapted.

Humans are remarkably adaptable, able to survive war and rape, imprisonment and illness. Even the least resilient among us — people like me who, as children, froze with terror when up at bat during Wiffle ball — can adapt to adverse circumstances so well that adversity becomes the norm.

In this way, we’re a lot like sparrows.

That’s not as much of a non sequitur as it sounds.

My life in Philadelphia began with bird poop on my head. It was one of the first days my mother had me out in the stroller, on a sunny summer day in Rittenhouse Square. We hadn’t been out for more than a half hour when a splat landed on my forehead, prompting my mother to run home and call the pediatrician in a panic. This did not endear birds to my mother.

Still, my father managed to bring some home. There was Miles, a parrot who would say, “Art Spikol!” over and over again, mimicking the way my dad answered the phone. There was Chuckie, a blue parakeet we had to give away when my mother contracted a strange illness her doctor attributed to the bird. And there was sweet, personable Sydney, a pink-cheeked cockatiel who sat next to the computer keyboard and stared at my father until Dad would take the bird’s head in his palm and give him a neck rub.

Though I was fond of all of these birds, as I am of any living creature that isn’t human, I didn’t develop meaningful relationships with them. Nor did I take particular notice of the birds I was surrounded by in the city.

But after I developed tinnitus, I noticed I could no longer have a peaceful moment in the Wissahickon, listening to the babble of the creek, the leaves in the breeze, the tock-tock of the woodpecker’s beak against the tree. Birdsong more easily penetrates the auditory haze, but between the tinnitus and my progressive hearing loss, I know there will come a day when I’ll no longer hear it. Last year, I said something in passing to an older relative about birds singing outside the window. “What birds?” he said.

That scared me. I thought: I need to start paying attention. Then, once I did, I became the kind of person who will stop abruptly on the sidewalk just to watch a sparrow peck a potato chip.

This radical conversion, it turns out, isn’t unusual. National Geographic Books publisher Lisa Thomas, who conceived the organization’s massive Year of the Bird project to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act this year, has seen it time and time again.

“You’re either a birder or you’re not, and once your eyes are opened up, it’s like you become almost insufferable, you get so excited about birds and learning about them and studying them,” Thomas says, as though she’s been spying on me for a year.

Though I initially tried projecting a sort of hipster, Jonathan Franzen-style, cocktail-party-appropriate interest in birds — with an emphasis on environmental conservation and the importance of birds in nature — things quickly went off the rails after I read The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. That book was filled with such shocking revelations that I carry it around in my handbag, pages dog-eared, cover torn, so I can pull it out and read key passages to whomever I’m with — usually my boyfriend, Brad.

“Do you realize the math that birds can do?” I’ll ask Brad over dinner.

“Do you know birds can distinguish humans and teach their offspring to recognize them, too?” I’ll ask Brad over lunch.

“Are you aware that many birds would, if given half the chance, get higher SAT scores than most people we know?” I’ll whisper in his ear during a movie.

Generally speaking, Brad does not know these things. That’s not because he’s ill-informed; he hosts Quizzo every month. But he doesn’t know about birds because most people don’t know about birds.

10 Things About Birds I’m Pretty Sure Most People Don’t Already Know:

1. They have intellectual abilities that rival those of primates.

2. They achieve mental feats at the level of a five-year-old.

3. While they all seem the same to us, they are singular to each other.

4. They can remember the past and learn from it as well as plan for the future.

5. They have unique personalities that determine their behavior.

6. They are capable of spontaneous, creative problem-solving.

7. Their brains have genes and neural circuitry similar to human brains.

8. They have a form of self-awareness, recognizing their own images in mirrors.

9. They demonstrate an awareness of other birds’ perspectives and needs, suggesting potential theory of mind.

10. They learn melodies the way humans learn language and pass their knowledge down through generations.

This is just a small sampling, and not all of these facts apply to all birds. Some birds are less impressive than others, certainly. But the breadth of cognitive ability and diversity of type in birds is fairly remarkable.

The corvid family — crows, ravens and the like — is especially prodigious. In Japan, for instance, crows have been known to hop into the road, place nuts in the line of traffic, and then wait for cars to drive over the nuts to break them open. If a particular nut is being bypassed by too many cars, they go out and reposition it.

Crows also understand analogies and have been known to express gratitude to humans by bringing them gifts. They even have their own version of hoagie mouth, communicating in distinct regional dialects. I could go on. At this point, I’m so in awe of crows that when I see one sitting in a tree, I get starstruck, clapping and grinning and staring as though Beyoncé is sitting up there belting out songs from Lemonade.

You might wonder why you didn’t know all this — why no one mentioned that bird brains have fascinating parallels with human brains. I think it’s partly because human beings have a terrible habit of underestimating animals, especially those that they don’t consider novel. Birds get taken for granted, which is a shame, since one of the best things about them is their abundance.

“Not everyone has a tiger in their backyard, but everyone has a bird,” says NatGeo’s Thomas. “So birds are a piece of the natural world that connects every single person on the planet. Everyone has birds that are native to where they live, and because birds travel over such great distances, birds are truly global citizens.”

All of this is true and yet not sufficiently persuasive to make us feel as excited about seeing a bird as we would be if we saw a tiger cub scavenging for crumbs on the platform at 30th Street. My theory is that’s because birds aren’t cute. Thomas agrees: “It’s a lot easier to raise money for tigers. The cubs are so cute and cuddly, so they’re relatable,” she says.

We only seem to admire birds that remind us of ourselves, like penguins, or that do human-ish tricks, like a cockatoo that dances to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” or the African grey that uses Alexa to turn on the lights.

Otherwise, it takes effort to get all “awwww” about a bird. But it can be done.

The house sparrow, Passer domesticus, has a remarkable ability to adapt to new circumstances, particularly if those circumstances have been created by humans. Sparrows were introduced to the U.S. in 1851, when some genius brought 16 of them to Brooklyn to control the moth population. You see where we are now: They’re everywhere. And sparrows — with their funny little hops and peeps — are undeniably cute. They all look a little like Spanky from The Little Rascals.

In Philadelphia, the sparrow is especially common. According to a 2016 bird breeding census helmed by Matthew Halley and Tony Croasdale, who works for the department of parks and rec as an environmental educator, approximately 101 species of birds nested in Philadelphia that year, with the most abundant being the American robin, the European starling, the gray catbird, the house sparrow, the Canada goose, the common grackle and the red-winged blackbird.

In The Genius of Birds, Ackerman marvels at the sparrow’s ability to nest in any man-made structure, from a coal mine to the tailpipe of an abandoned car. She also writes about the urban detritus that sparrows collect in order to make their nests. Soon after I read about sparrows in that book, I was climbing the stairs of a bland concrete parking structure. On the landing between floors three and four, I noticed a pile of schmutz — that’s the actual word that came to mind. It wasn’t quite trash, but it wasn’t not trash, either. I started to walk by, and then I heard a peeping and saw a sparrow darting back and forth. I remembered what Ackerman said about sparrows holing up in the built environment, and I looked more closely at the pile of schmutz.

Turns out it was the remains of a nest that had been constructed out of Scotch tape, plastic wrap, cigarette filters, and other human castoffs. It was something to behold there in that sterile environment — a sign of creativity and adaptation and determination to survive.

It brightened my whole day to see that messy pile, as it did to notice that on the Avis building at 20th and Arch, which is now empty, sparrows have created a nest in the red sign, right in the hollow of the letter A — a particularly apt adaption given that “avis” means “bird” in Latin. Learning about birds has made the city more wondrous for me.

And Philadelphia is pretty amazing when it comes to birds. Just ask Croasdale.

“We have a very large park system, our very own wildlife refuge, we’re on a giant river, and we’re very close to the coast, so birds migrating down the coast will often land here,” Croasdale says.

Croasdale was a nine-year-old Cub Scout when an environmental educator at Pennypack Park told him a story about a velvet kingfisher. “I thought it was some exotic bird you had to see far away,” he says. The educator at Pennypack set him straight: “He said, ‘No, you can see it right here in the park.’ The next week, I went and saw them. I’ve been an avid birder since then.”

Croasdale appreciates the fortuitous nature of bird appreciation: “Because they fly and migrate, they can show up in random places. You can live in the middle of the city and get a rare bird at your bird feeder. Yesterday I saw a gyrfalcon. That’s an Arctic falcon that you see in Newfoundland or the Canadian prairies in the winter, but not in New Jersey. So stuff like that is awesome.”

Awesome is the perfect word. There’s so much about bird life that is unexpected and stunning and even deeply poignant — and I’m talking This American Life poignant. And while I’m afraid not everyone can have my luck of pairing tinnitus with progressive hearing loss, thus triggering a panicked investigation into a limited resource, you can learn just a little bit more about the birds you encounter every day.

I mean, do you know that pigeons can tell the difference between a Picasso and a Monet? It’s true! Something to think about the next time one poops on your head.

Published as “Bird Is the Word” in the May 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.