No winners for evolution, just survivors

Linda-Mari Väli (General program and communications coordinator for Estonian Forest Aid)

This essay is a part of the campaign for a seasonal logging ban to protect birds and animals during their nesting period, the so-called four-month “logging peace” that was first proposed in Estonia already 19 years before by 5 scientific and environmental societies. Thus far there’s a two-month partial logging ban in state forests only. The ban would also contribute to minimizing soil damage, halt the spread of root rot and contribute to better wood quality. The ban would strike a compromise between modern industrial possibilities and traditional Estonian customs, in which forest was logged only during winter and there were various taboos on killing birds and destroying their nests.

One can look at the world from one perspective, but also from more. The one closer to attempt at a truth would probably be the one considerate of more options. Poetically speaking: the one aiming at several perspectives will see more threads and patterns in the fabric of reality than the one concentrating on the purely human angle. When you try to mix all of the colors in the same vessel, you will no doubt get a grayish solution, but when you leave them side by side, then the world will get much more colorful and meaningful.

The book by a popularizer of science, Jennifer Ackerman’s „Genius of Birds“ is undoubtedly miles ahead of the still strong behaviorist worldview of the past century, but I believe that the present century will find the common understanding of science updated with the help of younger generation scientists. The grand purpose of life and evolution cannot be the question of making the largest bombs and consuming the most energy and resources of the Earth. The great purpose of the evolution of species cannot be anointing one generation as the ruler and winner, but constant survival and development through the generations. In that art birds are undoubtedly much more developed than humans and may deserve emulating instead of destroying, we might learn a thing or two from them about the great secret of survival.

Photo by Estonian Wildlife Tours

Birds sang their songs on Earth while we just stumbled around without a developed linguistic apparatus. They saw the golden age and fall of dinosaurs, being among the few to survive it. They are small and their bones are rather more developed than human ones, even by the size of genetic material allocated to bone design, and thanks to that, they’re incredibly light, strong and resilient. Although their brains are small, they are twisty as ours, indicating a great intelligence. Their hearts are like little buzzing insects, beating sometimes as much as a thousand beats per minute.

Actually, we already look up to birds, as we have for thousands of years, for who wouldn’t envy their ability to fly? Let us remind that the Gods’ messenger in Greek mythology was a boy with winged sandals or the plethora of angels in Christian mythology. For what the birds see from up there, we can’t even see from a plane window, as the birds have had millions of years more for tuning their eyes, while our own hog-like ancestors dwelt underground, detecting little more than light. Therefore their eyes are ahead of ours as an elder brother is ahead of the younger.

Surely a human can beat a crow or a sparrow at a standard IQ-test, lining up historical US presidents or in modern mathematics. As do the last tribes still hunting and gathering. It is another question entirely, how would people solve many questions birds conquer easily, such as controlling mass migration, mimicking hundreds of different sounds, having an enormous volume of memory and many other things that the scientific community has noted while studying birds.

One of the smartest birds in a humanly appreciable way, the New Caledonian crow, can use and craft tools and solve difficult practical puzzles. The blue jay hides his food to hundreds of locations, remembering every single one for months to come. Rooks, on the other hand, comfort their partners after they’ve been in conflict with flock-mates, kissing their peak and preening their feathers. There are thousands of examples of these kinds of displays of emotion and intelligence.

Unlike most mammals, a great number of bird species practices long-term relationships as couples, similar to humans. And as humans do, many of them cheat on their spouses as well, while trying to keep it a secret. We are rather similar in a lot of ways: both of us have decided to start moving around on two feet and reserve our front limbs for other activities. A human’s front paws became tool-making hands, the front paws of the ancestral bird became wings which give a tremendous advantage compared to the rest of terrestrial animal kingdom, including humans. People craft complex machines with their hands, but some birds can craft and use tools as well and most birds craft rather complex nests.

Unlike other animals both birds and human have a very well developed vocal apparatus, and, as with sight, birds have a better one, as they’ve put more time into tuning it. Studies of birds’ brains have shown that singing stimulates the same brain parts which are stimulated in a human while using language, pointing at a possibility there might be more to it than just meaningless series of quavers.

Photo by Estonian Wildlife Tours

Finally, the more intelligent bird species — the nidicoles (eagles, owls, crows, sparrows, tits and others) raise helpless offspring, which need to be cared for for a long time, just as humans do, opposing this way to nidifuges (hens, grouses, ducks, geese, swans and others) which are more capable and independent right after hatching, but compared to the nidicoles, their brain develops less afterward, which accounts for the more advanced mental capacity of the adult nidicoles.

It is thought that the brains of animals with helpless offspring develop more for the very reason that their parents dedicate a lot of time to educating and socializing them and caring for them. The New Caledonian crow teaches its offspring to craft tools for an entire 1,5 years. I’ve seen hooded crows near my own home keeping a keen eye on their yet flightless, but already roaming offspring. Once I threw a blatant grin on a hoodie that cawed on me ill-tempered, after which it tried to drop a piece of wood on me. I don’t mind though — it was summertime, I soon understood its innocent offspring might have been nearby in the bushes. As a parent, I understand the crow fully in why they find humans suspicious. I’m even somewhat ashamed of our race and I hope that the honorable representatives of the bird kingdom — if they can hold a grudge, which a lot of studies suggest they can, crows especially — are able to forgive us all the crimes and massacres which we have committed against them and other nature and are continuing to do so till this day

It’s even somewhat strange if you think that nowadays the wild beasts and birds dedicate more time to raising their offspring than a lot of humans. Bird mother and father don’t go to work in the morning, they don’t take their young to an institution held by a stranger-bird. They don’t sit their young in front of screens, to „rest“ undisturbed after a day’s work. And if we look at how the distance between parents and their children has grown during recent centuries, it’s no wonder that the latest studies claim humans’ brains have been getting smaller. Evolution is a constant process and if you replace the factors that drive development with the ones that restrict it, it will surely have an effect. I am afraid that we are only starting to grasp the dire consequences of our “achievements.”

At the time a human’s brain size is receding, the birds, that can adapt to human influences will keep evolving. At was said before, the purpose of evolution should not be making the greatest bomb or the most intensive use of natural resources. The key to real evolution is in enduring, adapting to one’s environment through generations, in growing and perfecting the cultural space layer by layer. The real question is, who will survive after the bomb goes off and the feast of thoughtless resource use ends.

If humans are unable to adapt to their own impact and substantially change their consumption habits and attitude towards the rest of alive nature, then it may come to pass, that there are no humans left in 1000 years — or just some stragglers trying to make it among the ruins of civilization and re-invent the knowledge, which were just as elementary and in everyone’s reach, but subject to being lost completely in the event of systemic collapse.

But in parallel to that, a colony of crows may awaken, who — finally free from the tyranny of man — can finally really start concentrating on developing the culture of their species and nurturing their youth, coming out from the disturbance caused by humans as a victor — unlike so many other species. With their capability of flight and conservative resource intake crows and other smart birds (avis sapiens!) are much better suited to dealing with climate change and reduction in fertile agricultural lands than the agents of those changes themselves. Moreover, we have yet to make the decision to change and adapt, while countless species of birds are doing it already, handling a lot of changes better than humans do.

So the question is — is a human worthy of herself and this world — can we adapt to our own impact while preserving the culture and civilization that we’ve created, to become smarter in the large perspective, to evolve evolutionally, into more capable, more emphatic species? As a human and a mother of two human children I naturally hope that we are capable of that and I intend to give my every effort to the realization of that perspective. Yet I think the new humans should not cast themselves apart from other species, but rejoin the ecosystem similarly to what may have been customary back in the older, hunter-gatherer times — back when we saw animals more as our equals.

Maybe we should raise our eyes to the skies for a change and learn the art of living from birds instead? How have they survived for so long and made it, living through great calamities and catastrophes? What are they singing and why? What could birds be thinking of? How to love each other and think of our children? Could we learn their language and ask them — or contrariwise?

I hope that humans are capable of learning from their non-human fellows, about dedication to children, living in harmony with the environment and adapting to great changes. Jennifer Ackerman’s „Genius of Birds“ comes well recommended for expanding one’s sense of the world and thinking on how we could move on together on this “nesty spaceship” called Earth.