November 30, 2008 [LINK / comment]
Are canaries self-aware?
I suppose all pet owners, or at least those who own mammals and birds, are prone to wonder how much self-awareness their pets have. This question is partly related to the degree of intelligence possessed by birds. According to a research study I cited in January 2005, birds' brains are a lot more complex than most people would guess. Birds are often just as resourceful as many mammals, and their "language" abilities (that is, singing and vocalizing to express different emotions) are on par or even greater.
It's probably impossible to make a fair assessment of multiple species, because we humans are "biased" in valuing traits that we possess. Therefore, we tend to regard dogs as more friendly or sociable than cats, but that doesn't necessarily mean that dogs are, generally speaking, superior to cats. Or what about horses? Many people are nuts about horses and ponies, but to me they seem almost as dull and expressionless as cows. (Sorry if I offended anyone by that.) Horses just don't seem to interact with humans in the same way a dog or even a cat would do.
When it comes to pet birds, there are a wide range of behavior types. The more advanced species such as parrots and macaws (which can be trained to "talk") depend on constant interaction with another member or their species or else a human companion, or they will soon become neurotic and unhealthy. You can touch them or let them perch on your finger, and that is often true with Budgerigars, a.k.a. "parakeets." Other birds are the opposite, preferring quiet solitude. The tiny finches you see in pet stores just don't seem to have much going on upstairs.
That brings us to my favorite indoor bird: the canary! These little songsters are delightfully inquisitive and very sociable, though they are usually wary of human contact. Our canaries have always been very attentive to our presence, clearly understanding that we are friendly providers of food, and they respond when we talk to them. The males (the late George, and Luciano) enjoy vocal "competition" whenever I whistle an imitation of their songs, as it gives them a sense of purpose in establishing "territory." It's probably like human "self-esteem," something that needs to be nurtured for the sake of physical health.
I got started on this atypical speculative digression after observing the "young buck" Luciano over the last few weeks. He is as feisty and inquisitive as ever, and he has even got to the point of trusting that he will pull on the hairs of my scalp if I lie down close to him. Once or twice he has landed on top of my head, and he even stayed there while I stood up once. (That would have made a cute video!) Earlier this month, I put a hand mirror on the floor, and Luciano quickly took a look at himself, clearly fascinated by his image, even though he doesn't realize he's looking at himself. He keeps trying to look around the back side of the mirror to find the other canary which surely must be there, but without success so far. This is probably an indication of birds' limited intellect, but the fact that he keeps going back shows that his mind is busy at work trying to solve that "puzzle."
As for Princess, she has not flown at all since last March, so we have to provide for everything she needs, making sure she can get enough food and water. Sometimes Luciano aggressively approaches her in hopes of mating (she can't), but usually the two of them are on more cordial terms.