Recently, a number of scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration, stating their conviction that animals have conscious awareness. I was pleased to see among the signatories Irene Pepperberg, a personal hero and the leading expert in parrot intelligence, and I appreciate that so many people were willing to risk accusations of anthropomorphism and sentimentality. But, otherwise, the announcement mainly gave me the satisfaction of other people saying what I have known for years.
I have been convinced since childhood that at least some animals were self-aware to one degree or another. However, at least twice, this fact has hit me with the force of revelation.
The first time was shortly after Trish and I bought Ningauble, a Nanday conure. I was lounging on a futon by the window, and he was on my chest. As the sky darkened outside, Ning began to get agitated, indicating the direction of his cage with his whole body and making anxious noises.
I knew perfectly well that he wanted to be carried over to the cage, but I didn’t feel like moving. If he really wanted, he could fly there.
But after a few minutes of expressing his desire, Ning quietened. His head began to move, first to look at my toes and the end of the futon, then down to the floor and over to a chair beside his cage. He repeated the same eye movements several times, then marched along the path I have described, ending by climbing to the top of his cage and letting out one triumphant shriek.
Ning, I realized as a thin thrill of excitement passed through me, had just planned his route and followed it. He had at least a limited sense of the future, and enough awareness of himself to imagine doing something in the future. Of course he would have had an easier time if he had flown, but parrots’ intelligence rarely exceeds that of a three or four year old human, and he had all of a toddler’s obsessive tendencies.
This was not a random incident, either. Over the decades of living with parrots, I have seen Ning and all the other birds that have been through our house making simple plans and coming to a decision more times than I remember.
I particularly remember when each bird came to a decision and reached out to preen a human for the first time. Not only was it a sign of affection, but it has always been preceded by a moment of deliberation, as though the bird was deciding whether to extend trust. It has never been as unexpected as that moment of watching Ning, but the repetition showed that his planning was more everyday than something unusual.
The second moment was in early Spring. Trish and I were at Centennial Park on Burnaby Mountain when we noticed two ravens picking at the garbage bins outside the restaurant. We immediately observed that only one raven foraged at any given time; the other would perch, a little higher, shifting slightly and looking all around.
Over about half an hour, we worked our way cautiously closer. We were about ten meters away when a restaurant worker opened the door and tossed a big black bag of garbage into the bin before turning on his heels and disappearing inside again.
The ravens took the air. One landed on the grass about five meters of us. Abruptly, it realized how close we were, and looked up.
At once, I had a sense of being evaluated. My perception was not just based on the raven’s obvious wariness, or the fact that it was cocking its head as though to get a better view of us. It was the fact that I was close enough to look the raven in the eyes.
Once at a wildlife refuge, I had been eyed in the same way by a bald eagle separated from me by a wire cage. Its eyes were so mad that I could tell that its only thought was: Food? Not food?
By contrast, the raven seemed to be doing a more complex evaluation of us. Its wings were poised to take flight, but it seem to be risking a moment or two to be curious about us – even, perhaps, curious about our curiosity. What else the bird might be thinking about us I can only imagine, but what struck me was that looking it in the eye was exactly the same as looking a human in the eye. I was watching another patch of self-awareness watching me.
After about thirty seconds, we started to ease down to our knees, by unspoken agreement hoping that we would be less threatening if we looked smaller. But, as cautious as our movements were, they were enough for the raven to take to the air, flying over us with the single click of its beak. A moment later, both ravens were flying for a high stand of trees on the other side of the park.
Both these incidents took place years ago, but both have formed an important part of my thinking ever since. You might accuse me of an over-active imagination, but all I can say is that you would have had similar perceptions if you had been in the same position.
I hope that our planet will encounter aliens in my lifetime, but, if not, I won’t be too greatly disappointed. So far as I am concerned, my own first contacts with alien intelligences has already happened.