Posts tagged bird.
Greater Painted-snipe, Rostratula benghalensis - female | ©Derek Keats (Kruger National Park, South Africa)
Rostratula benghalensis (Charadriiformes - Rostratulidae) is a medium-sized wader (23-28 cm length; 50-55 cm wingspan), found in marshes in Africa, India, Pakistan, and South-east Asia (Sulawesi).
This species is unusual amongst birds because the female is larger and more brightly colored than the male.
Kelp Goose (Chloephaga hybrida)
…a species of sheldgoose (Tadorninae) that is native to the Southern part of South America, occurring in Patagonia, the Tierra del Fuego, and the Falkland Islands. Kelp geese typically inhabit rocky coasts and areas rich with their food source. True to their common name kelp geese feed almost exclusively on green seaweed, mainly from the genus Ulva.
Eastern Screetch Owl by Graham McGeorge
Reeve’s Pheasant ~ Königsfasan ~ Syrmaticus reevesii
2014 © Jesse Alveo
Tired swimmer rescued in Finland
During the first weekend of November, a Finnish man was kayaking on a lake in a thick fog. He saw something floating in the water, and when he got closer he saw that it was a Northern Hawk-Owl. It was clearly exhausted and the man lifted it out of the freezing water onto the tip of his kayak. The owl then crawled to his lap for warmth and burrowed under his lifejacket.
Since his original destination was too far away, the man decided to head for a nearby art museum on the lake shore. Once there he was eagerly assisted by both visitors and a museum guide, who took the bird in to rest and dry up next to a warm stove. At the end of the day the owl had recovered and was released back into the wild.
How the owl ended up in the lake in the first place remains a mystery. It may have got lost in the fog, or have been driven out to the lake by Hooded Crows (if a flock spots a predatory bird they tend to chase it away quite aggressively).
(This is my summarized translation of the article which is only available in Finnish. No copyright infringement is intended, only sharing this to celebrate the brave little owl and all the people who helped him.)
Mental Disorders in Animals
The above is an image of a captive African gray parrot that suffers from excessive feather-plucking, or pterotillomania. People who work with captive parrots or own parrots as pets have probably at least heard of this disorder, or even observed it firsthand. The parrot may have an excellent diet and be in good physical condition, yet it will continue to pluck and pluck at its own feathers, shaving itself bald in places.
If the cause is not a disorder of the body, then, can we say that this is a symptom of a disorder of the mind?
That brings up another question, though: how can we possibly know what is happening in an animal’s head? How can we separate an animal’s behavior into that of bodily needs and that of mental needs? People like to point out all the time that you can’t sit a dog on a couch and ask him what his childhood was like; we don’t even know if a dog’s memory of his childhood exists in any form that a human would recognize. While I think most people would agree that animals have minds, they function- by necessity and evolution- in ways ours do not.
I think this has to be the focal point of the following discussion: animal minds and human minds are different. Am I saying animal minds are inferior? Certainly not. But I’d like to point out that a lot of the research on mental disorders in animals focuses on finding parallels with human mental disorders. Yet the underlying reasons for disordered behavior in animals may be because they have mental needs that humans do not. For example, a popular theory behind why parrots develop pterotillomania is because they are not given ample opportunities to perform normative food-foraging behaviors.
So what forms of mental disorders are present in animals, and what are biologists, psychologists, veterinarians, and pet owners doing to better understand them?
Below the cut I’ll be discussing several things that people may find distressing/triggering: animal suffering, mental illness (including references or descriptions of the most commonly diagnosed human mental disorders), and animal research. It’s an upsetting topic, which is why I’m writing about it much more formally than I normally do, but I think it’s both interesting and important.
Note: This post is also extremely long.
This is an extremely important post and I’d like to add a bit more information in the cognitive ethology side along with the discourse around this matter. As Koryos has mentioned, there is no doubt on whether or not animals suffer from mental illnesses — at least to vets, many animal researchers/caretakers, and some pet owners.
An Introduction to Animal Cognition Studies
Psychology wasn’t the first discipline interested in studying how humans (and animals) perceived and understood the world. Locke’s Theory of Mind/Knowledge  was one of the foremost and most influential attempts to approach this. Simply put, Locke believed that the mind’s job is primarily to associate experiences. These associations are enhanced by repetition and relation (closeness to the individual). From this, behavior is shaped through association. Everything the individual thinks/does is intertwined with their experiences and their mind is thus a blank slate waiting to be filled with experiences. Kant ultimately disagrees and starts to set the stage for Darwin’s perspective. The mind is not a blank slate willing to accept any and all things, but rather more willing to accept certain experiences than others. Simply stated, Kant  believed that there are perceptions and innate behaviors that exist a priori to having experience the events. These innate behaviors and perceptions help to shape experiences and put them into particular schemas that better fit their worldview. In order to understand our own experiences and our perceptions, we also have to understand the innate working mechanisms of the mind itself.
In comes Darwin who wanted to incorporate both Locke’s and Kant’s philosophies, after all, whatever mechanisms that have shaped behavior and physiology (cough, evolution), must surely also act on the mind and not exclusive from it. Instinct, behaviors, and thoughts are all products of the mind — but they can be studied like any biological trait. In Darwin’s perspective, the mind is very species-specific. Species take in information from their surroundings, synthesize it, and generates a world view that not only fits their current realities, but also fits the path their evolutionary history has taken them .
Now we enter the beginnings of cognitive psychology. I will refrain from stating every important theory and psychologist. Instead, I will jump in with Skinner and Behaviorism. As many of you are well aware, Skinner’s influence in psychology is monumental. He saw a black box in cognitive psychology which includes questions such as what does the animal think? and do they see/experience the same thing? and do they know what they how and how do they know it? All similar questions were immediately thrown into this black box and decided that if it cannot be answered, then it will be tucked safely away until later. Instead, Skinner focused closely on operant conditioning  — which can be elegantly experimented and explained. Skinner’s primary experiments suggest that behavior is based on stimuli and responses. Thoughts and emotions played no role in behavior, because to Skinner, these behaviors are nonexistent. This perspective is vastly different from Darwin’s metaphysics.
For the most of the 20th century, behaviorism dominated the field of psychology in both human and nonhuman research. Luckily, behaviorism was challenged multiple times by countless psychologists. One of the more prominent of the challenges was by Tolman  who argue that animals acquire knowledge through their experiences. Many more cognitive psychologists joined in as they started noticing that their subjects behaved in ways that simply could not be explained through stimulus response. How could Fixed Action Patterns make sense in behaviorist psychology? How could innate behaviors exist?
If behaviors, emotions, and thoughts are based within the brain, why don’t we study the brain? If they are all rooted within the brain, couldn’t we study it just like any other biological traits?
Studying animal experiences and perception was of course met with much pull. In attempts to try not to be anthropomorphic, scientists instead started engaging in anthropodenial . When studying behavior, students are constantly taught Morgan’s Canon , otherwise known as the Law of Parsimony. This canon is so important that it needs to be stated:
"In no case may we interpret an action as a the outcome of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one that stands lower in the psychological scale (Morgan, 1984:53)."
This law simply states that if there’s an simpler explanation that does the same job, go with that and never assume more cognitive complexity than you need to. This simple canon is a good canon that has lead to decreases in anthropomorphism in scientific literature and have greatly advanced cognitive ethology. However, as more thorough animal research continued, animal researchers started questioning the applicability of this canon.
The more animal behavior is studied, the more researchers realized that these behaviors are not purely reward/punishment based. In order to not to anthropomorphize their research, scientists were finding increasingly difficult to explain these characteristics. How would you explain instances of play? Social learning? Conformity? And friendships? These experiences are sounding similar and similar to our own human experiences, yet people continue to distance human experiences from animal experiences — either as an extreme avoidance towards anthropomorphism or to secure our superiority in the hierarchy.
The primary problem is, nonhuman animals are not machines. They experience many of the same emotions that we experience. Their life histories are not so different from ours to have garnered completely different emotional processing and perceptions. If we were descended from machines, are we also machines? How did we cross the threshold from machines to nonmachines? More and more, this perspective is falling apart and the dividing wall is weakly being put together with duct tape and denial.
When you try to abide strictly by Morgan’s Canon, you still start to miss out on important behaviors. You need not even approach qualia to understand that every species has their own world perspective (umwelt); however, that does not mean that nonhuman animals cannot experience the experiences of us humans. That is unfortunately something that many researchers are still grappling with.
Mental Illnesses in Animals
In studying mental illnesses in animals, this becomes more controversial. Animals are used as research models. Because many mental illnesses have a biological etiology, these studies not only gives us a glimpse on how mental illnesses affect humans and animals, but also a glimpse in the mind of animals. Through these studies on depression, anxiety, paranoia, etc, scientists now have more concrete proof that animals experience the same (or at least similar) emotions as humans. As of such, we also have started to realize that certain illnesses (such as schizophrenia) may actually be specific only to humans since adequate animal models of schizophrenia has yet to be found .
Animal caretakers and vets were on the forefront of accepting this realization, probably because it started being difficult to excuse certain behaviors as being independent of higher cognitive functioning. In many captive settings psychiatric drugs are prescribed to soothe anxiety and other mental conditions. Early captive settings were squalid and rather sad. During this time though, people still greatly believed that animals weren’t capable of the same spectrum of emotions and quality of life as humans. Early cognitive ethology studies of using animals in these squalid conditions have since been reviewed and questioned. It has since been shown time and time again that animals (and humans) need enrichment and enriching activities in their daily lives. The mind isn’t a blank slate that will be fine if left unattended as Locke originally suggested, but rather a sensitive organ that constantly takes in information, synthesizes it, and integrates it into their worldview.
Luckily, there is more awareness in the scientific and caretaking communities. Current studies abide by strict rules and regulations overruling everything from animal husbandry to experimentation.
 John Locke. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: Book Two; Ideas.
 Gary Banham. (2006) Kant and Leibniz on Living Force.
 Robert Richards. Darwin’s Metaphysics of Mind.
 BF Skinner. (1938) The Behavior of Organisms: and experimental analysis.
 Edward Tolman. (1932) Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men.
 Frans de Waal. (1997) Are we in anthropodenial?
 CL Morgan. Introduction to comparative psychology
 Braff and Geyer. (1990) Sensorimotor Gating and Schizophrenia: Human and Animal Model Studies.
I will be working at a parrot rescue this summer. This is so helpful. Thank you!
Turkey Vultures at Camel Rock, Garden of the Gods, Shawnee National Forest