Avian reflections

This past weekend a couple of birds flew into our window. It’s happened before but normally we only know if there is a feather smeared on the window. This time, however, we were sitting in the room when two near-simultaneous “thuds” were heard on the window. Upon investigation one bird died instantly and the other showed signs of life.

The dead bird was properly disposed of, but what to do with the other one? Was it mortally wounded? How can you tell? If so should we kill it right away or let nature “take its course?” I didn’t even know what kind of bird it was so I couldn’t tell if its crooked beak was a result of the impact or simply characteristic of the species; another sign of trauma?

So many questions. As I sought answers I relocated the bird to a less conspicuous spot (away from predatorial eyes) and put it under a small sheet of wood to keep it somewhat safe from the elements. Some time later it had moved about 3 meters from the safety I provided and was right in the wide open, exposed to the elements and easily seen by other animals that might be in the area. It’s movement was a good sign, but it’s choice of where to move was not so good. I scooped the bird up into a pail and brought it into the house to keep it safe during the cold night.

I also started surfing the ‘net to try to navigate this issue. I discovered some really interesting stuff. This article is a fascinating research paper on bird strikes on windows. It goes through some of the research into causes of death, signs of a good recovery, and so on. I also discovered that it is actually illegal – not just advised against, it is contrary to the law – to attempt to care for a wild animal. It must be handed over to the appropriate care.

Well, that settled it. The next morning I loaded the bird into our van and drove it to a veterinary clinic that doubles as an intake facility for wildlife rehabilitation. They were happy to take care of it and seemed positive about its activity. Their guess was that it was a finch, though I hardly expect them to be expert at bird identification given their focus on typical city-life veterinarian issues.

Upon reflection it occurred to me just how wide the divide is between animals and humans. Consider everything I just described up to this point in the article and consider the closest animal equivalent to each of them.

  1. Ethics. I considered carefully the moral reasons why I should leave the bird, moral reasons why I should end its life and moral reasons why I should care for it and moral reasons why I should hand it over to more qualified individuals. In the end I made a decision and if anybody else ponders whether I made the right decision or not then they, too, are engaging in ethical reflection with the implication that there is, in fact, a right answer.
  2. Civilization. Consider my reference to the laws of the land. Laws only make sense within a collective, organized, group of people. We have a democratic system in place by which we elect representatives who then make, change and repeal the laws that govern the entire civilization.
  3. Business. I started my own company (it’s just me at this point) a couple of years ago and I still have a tough time wrapping my mind around the difference between “the company” and me, personally. Humans operate on the level of abstract entities involving finances (another abstract entity), services provided, expertise, and so forth.
  4. Technology. Everything from the window the bird flew into, the shovel I used to relocate it, the sheet of wood I placed over it, the pail I used to contain it, the internet I used to research it and the van I used to transport it are examples of technology that seamlessly integrate into human life. These are all natural parts of how we live our lives and they are so commonplace that every reader probably just glossed over the technology component without giving it a second thought.
  5. Science. When I went online I discovered a fascinating research paper somebody did on bird strikes. But the point is that somebody did that research. They understood how science should be done in order to acquire knowledge, including the component of documenting their research for the benefit of others (an integral component of science).
  6. Language. From the research paper I read, to the websites I consulted, to my visit to the vet’s office the entire episode relied heavily on a sophisticated language capable of communicating complex ideas that correspond to concrete objects (the bird, the window, etc) as well as abstractions (strike the window, injury, etc).
  7. Understanding. Human understanding is perhaps the most marvelous trait of all. I comprehend the idea of momentum, the empathy of pain, the categorization of animal types, and so much more with respect to this one little story. Not just me, you too!

All of these features (and I’m sure I missed some) strike me as characteristically human. They are either completely absent in animals or present to such a degree that the colossal difference between our capacities and animal capacities demands an explanation. Ask yourself this; if you collided with a window and were virtually unconscious which animal would you hope would discover you? Some animals might enjoy an easy meal. Others would flee in fear. Some are so simple that they may not even realize you are alive as they crawl over you. Even if the most capable of animals, perhaps a primate, were to discover you shortly after your accident, Gorillas have no laws about what to do with an injured human. They have no vet clinics for other animals and humans. They have no internet nor any scientific research with which they might understand your situation. Even their understanding, though impressive for animals, is light years simpler than human understanding. Are they ethical? Perhaps some of them are, but others may use you as a toy while you slowly succumb to you injuries.

Perhaps you’d rather have a dog find you. Then you could send Lassie home to get help. How would Lassie communicate with other humans? Barking. Compare their “language” to the works of Shakespeare and you get an idea of the difference between animals and humans. Besides, the only way you are getting help is if the dog finds another human; if dog’s were the most capable creatures on the planet then I’m sorry to say that you are done for.

The theory held by many is that life is completely reducible to material causes and effects – primarily genes and environment. Given the incredible similarities between human genetic code and other mammalian genetic codes (apparently we are – what is it – 99.5% identical to orangutans?) and considering we live in precisely the same physical environment as many mammals around us (rabbits and squirrels frequent our yard, for instance), why the titanic difference in capabilities? How can the difference between barks and Hamlet be explained in purely material terms? How can the difference between having a lengthy ethical debate in one’s own mind regarding the appropriate course of action with respect to an injured animal and batting it around as a toy be explained by a few million lines of genetic software? How can civilization – complete with governments, laws, science, technology and so much more – be explained by slight differences in environmental influences?

The striking difference between humans and any other genetically based entity on the face of the earth, it seems to me, cannot be explained in purely material terms. Certainly we live within a material system, but to say that’s all there is strikes me as the kind of fanciful belief in magic that I have long since outgrown. There is some kind of slight-of-hand going on here; some kind of illusion that depends on an unseen force in order to work. There is, if you will, a man behind the curtain, giving life to all and very advanced, even spiritual, life to only humans.

You will never reach this conclusion by science alone, of course, but before you declare that this conclusion must therefore be false perhaps you should reconsider the fact that any such declaration is possible for you, and completely impossible for any animal. While you read the internet and draw philosophical conclusions regarding abstract concepts, billions of animals worldwide could not even possibly understand what the internet is, nor could they contribute any response, at all, to your declarations on such philosophical matters. They just obey the four F’s of life; we actually understand them.


About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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