There is no scientific agreement about whether or not birds have feelings, but birders who watch their feathered friends often see evidence of bird emotions in their different personalities and behaviors. Birds do not communicate emotions directly and though behavior clues can be ambiguous, those behaviors can demonstrate a wide range of emotions to observant birders.
Pet Birds and Emotions
Pet bird owners have an opportunity that birders rarely see: they can bond extensively with their individual pets. Through those bonds they grow familiar with their birds' unique moods and emotions, from stress and loneliness to joy and excitement. That familiarity leaves no doubt that pet birds can and do feel emotions. Without as much intimate interaction with wild birds, however, it can be difficult to see the same emotional depth in backyard birds. It is not impossible to see the emotions of wild birds, but it takes careful observation and patience to see the subtle clues of birds' feelings.
How Wild Birds Show Emotions
While the range of emotional expression of birds can be hotly debated, there are prominent emotions that can be seen in many wild birds.
- Love / Affection: Gentle courtship behavior such as mutual preening or sharing food shows a bond between mated birds that can easily be seen as love. Parent birds are just as caring toward their hatchlings, which may be a demonstration of parental love. While these emotions may not last beyond one breeding season or brood, they can be strong bonds nonetheless. Birds that mate for life may show love toward one another in many ways, including sharing companionship throughout the year just as human mates will. Devoted mates may protect one another, share food resources, or do other things to show their affection and caring.
- Fear / Tension: Frightened birds exhibit several behaviors that demonstrate their fear. Quick flight and escape is the most common reaction to fear and is the same fight-or-flight response humans use. Other fear indicators include freezing in place, crouching, increased respiration rate, widened eyes, and alarm or distress calls. These are all similar fear indicators to humans freezing in fear, a racing heart, and screams of terror. Parent birds may also show fear for their offspring by using different distraction displays or other tactics in an attempt to lure predators away from vulnerable chicks.
- Anger / Rage: Anger is one of the emotions most commonly seen in birds. Angry bird behavior might include threatening postures, hisses, or other intimidating noises and even lunges, wing slaps, bites, and other attacks. In the air, angry birds may dive at intruders or competitors, even colliding with them or chasing them away from the area. Backyard birders frequently see this type of behavior at feeders, and birds can also demonstrate anger in the field when their territory or nesting area is invaded.
- Grief / Sadness: Grief is a complex emotion and just as all humans react differently when grieving, birds can also react differently. In many cases that behavior may not be recognized as grief right away. For example, if a grieving bird were to shut down (denial, commonly recognized as the first stage of grief), its behavior may appear unchanged. Birds have been documented as obviously looking for a lost mate or chick, however, and listless behaviors and drooped postures are common indicators of grieving birds. Some grieving birds may make piteous cries, perhaps hoping that a lost mate or companion might respond.
- Happiness / Joy: Pleasure can be seen in birds through different types of exuberant behavior. Singing when it is not necessary to attract a mate or defend a territory as well as the playful games of intelligent corvids are examples of happy actions birds may take. When birds are happy, they may also make soft purring calls or other noises that could be equated to a human humming in happiness. Happy birds may also feel very comfortable sunning or otherwise relaxing without being on guard for threats every moment.
Emotion or Instinct?
Bird emotions are not clear cut, and there is much debate over whether behaviors that might look emotional are really heartfelt expressions or just instinctual behavior. For example, a pair of birds engaged in courtship behavior may not have any emotional connection, but could simply be seeking the most viable mate to produce strong, healthy offspring. Similarly, other behaviors can also be defined in terms of a bird's survival. Fear is necessary to evade predators, anger helps defend a territory or feeding area, and grief is an attempt to recover the effort from a lost mate or chick. Even positive emotions such as joy and love could simply be humans viewing birds in human-like terms. The debate is two-sided, however; human emotional behavior has similar survival purposes in terms of choosing a mate, avoiding danger, and staying healthy. In either case for both birds and humans, the line between emotion and instinct is a thin, blurry one.
Using Bird Emotions to Be a Better Birder
Whether or not birds actually feel emotions, birders who can pick up on the subtle, emotion-like clues in bird behavior can improve their birding skills.
- If birds seem happy with certain foods, offering more of that food will attract more birds to the yard. Watch for birds that eat certain foods quickly, pick through seed for their favorite tidbits, or even become bold enough to be hand-fed for the best treats.
- If birds are angry at the feeder and consistently fight or threaten other feeding birds, adding larger feeders or moving feeders further apart can help. This will increase personal space and reduce birds' stress, lessening their angry behavior and allowing more birds to feed comfortably.
- If birds show fear, birders can back away and leave the birds in peace. Birders might also look around for other potential threats, such as a nearby predator, a passing hawk, or another object that might be causing birds distress.
Birds may or may not have feelings and emotions, but emotion-like behavior can provide fascinating insights into how birds act. Birders who carefully observe every bird they see can read emotional clues to learn even more about birds' lives.