Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Do Robins Have a Self-Concept?

A fat robin landed on the ornamental pine tree in a corner right out side my study window and looked around. I knew what he was thinking: This seems like a good place for a nest.

But before long he noticed his own reflection in the window, and thinking it was a rival bird, started attacking the window. He flew vigorously up against it and pecked, only to be bounced away by that formidable adversary.

This tells me that robins do not recognize themselves in a mirror. And I’m not surprised. All robins look about the same to me. Of course, they probably think that about us.

The ability to recognize yourself in a mirror is considered an index of self-awareness. Children acquire the ability at around 18 months old. A small red spot of makeup is surreptitiously put on the child’s forehead, then the child is brought to a mirror. Children younger than 18 months do not seem to recognize the mirror image as themselves. However after 18 months they notice the red spot and touch it, or try to wipe it off, and often show signs of embarrassment, such as smiling and laughing.

Presumably, you must have a certain degree of self-awareness to recognize yourself in a mirror image. Children over 18 months pass the mirror test, and so do chimpanzees and dolphins, and even elephants. (See http://notexactlyrocketscience.wordpress.com/2006/11/27/elephants-can-recognise-themselves-in-a-mirror/ for an interesting report on elephants passing the mirror test of self-awareness).

Anyway, robins do not pass the mirror test, and that's too bad. I have had trouble before with robins attacking my windows. They just won’t give up. The window becomes all glopped up with dirt, oils, and bird poop as they maintain their attack for days on end.

So I got up from my desk and walked over to the window, about 12 inches from the tree branch. The robin immediately flew away. The window must not form a perfect mirror if he can see me, a major predator, through the glass. Fine.

But in two minutes he was baaaack! He sat on the branch for a minute, then started attacking his illusory competitor in the window. Again I got up and went to the window and again he flew away.

Two minutes later, he was back again and I scared him away again. This cycle was repeated five times. I wondered how long it would take for him to learn that this was NOT a good place for a nest. I wasn’t really prepared to play this game for several days. So I stood at the window and waited, to see if he would return with me standing right there.

Very shortly, he flew back, but saw me and diverted to land on the ground in the shrubbery below the window. He started pecking the ground "nonchalantly" (it seemed to me), moving around at random. Was it a diversionary tactic?

I soon lost sight of him in the brush, but continued to wait and watch. A few seconds later I noticed a remarkable thing, a single, motionless bird’s eye peering at me through a narrow clear channel from the ground, through the brush, to where I was standing.

The robin was watching me! It was eerie. His unblinking eye stared right at me. I could not see the rest of his body. He was hidden, I would say on purpose, and spying on me!

In order for an animal to hide and spy on another animal, it must have some sort of a self-concept. It must have the animal-equivalent of the thought, “I can see him, but he can’t see me.” Of course it would not be a linguistic conceptualization, but it would have to involve some kind of understanding like that. There is no other way to interpret the behavior of “hiding and spying”.

I was shocked that a bird would even know how to do that. Birds fly around in the sky. They are not adapted to peering through narrow openings in the brush, and you wouldn’t think they have much experience in hiding either.

But then I thought, they must have a lot of experience flying through tree branches and so on, so they would have good skills at seeing an opening through dense obstructions. And I guess nests are sort of hidden, so maybe they have the bird-concept of “hiding” also.

Could he really see me? Birds have excellent vision, as demonstrated by eagles and hawks, who can spot a tiny mouse on the ground from hundreds of feet in the air. Birds have pinpoint sharp vision at great distances, even if their field of view is narrow, like tunnel vision.

He watched. I waited. I started to get creeped out. So I suddenly waved my hands rapidly back and forth in front of my face. The robin immediately retreated and flew up and out of the brush. I never saw him again.

That was yesterday, but I am still unsettled by the experience. I was stalked by a robin! I was not frightened, but made uncomfortable by “le regard,” as Jean-Paul Sartre called it when someone stares at you. I had never considered before that a robin could have enough self-awareness to do something like that.

It seems like we need to discriminate different kinds of self-awareness. The mirror test indicates some kind of bodily self-recognition, but the ability to hide and watch may be an entirely different kind of self-awareness, something less physical and more social than the mirror test defines.