Bird Morality

December 2, 2005

From bootstrap analysis:

Cowbirds have an undeserved poor reputation as being lazy or immoral. Of course, the attitude that birds, or any other animal, can or should follow human expectations of ethical or moral behavior is illogical and unreasonable.

Certainly true, although I hasten to add that a fair number of those concerned with the actions of nest parasites base that concern more on conservation issues. Nevertheless, it is not always easy for us to separate out that visceral response to witnessing what would be an atrocity in its human representation.

I don’t intend this to be a lengthy exploration of bird morality, but the topic is interesting. Curiously, though, this isn’t the case only with those who react negatively to cowbirds and other nest parasites, but also to certain groups in reaction to March of the Penguins. Roger Ebert:

The stupendous success of “March of the Penguins” this summer has led some political and religious agenda-promoting scalawags to paint weird and disturbing parallels between penguin behavior and human behavior, and to draw insupportable conclusions that do not exactly square with zoological reality.

He’s referring to media critics like Michael Medved and Maggie Gallagher. And let’s not even mention penguin homosexuality. OK, I change my mind, let’s:

Every day at Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo the two males entwine necks, vocalise to each other and have, er, sex. When offered female companionship, they decline.

Roy and Silo have even displayed urges to procreate, and once tried to hatch a rock. Finally their keeper, Rob Gramzay, gave them a fertile egg from another brood. Tango, their chick, was born later. The pair raised it lovingly. ‘They did a great job,’ admits Gramzay.

I believe there’s nothing wrong with finding character traits in birds that help us appreciate them more. As long as it remains clear that bird morality is not something we humans are privy to understand – in this we can only gaze from afar.

Back to cowbirds though. If it cannot definitely be shown that cowbird range expansion is causing population drops in host songbird species in these newly penetrated areas, then from a conservation perspective the cowbirds are cleared of their “responsibility”, and we can resume concern for decreasing populations of host species due to more direct human causes like habitat destruction and collisions with transmission towers, etc.


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