Do birds have self-awareness?

Can there be birds with experience of self-awareness? Let's see what the research shows.

Several recent studies have observed that some birds (corvids and parrots) have developed a series of cognitive instruments comparable to those of certain primates and other large mammals.

Despite the fact that culturally many winged animals have been classified as "intelligent" and "decisive" beings by the general population since ancient times, the truth is that human beings are more fascinated by what is most similar to them, and therefore most experiments in ethology and animal behavior have been directed to large primates in captivity.

This leaves a question in the air that is very difficult to answer: do birds have self-awareness? From a completely empirical point of view and with a critical eye, we are going to try to interpret what is known on this subject.

Do birds have self-awareness? The dilemma of humanization

Ethology is the branch of biology and experimental psychology that studies the behavior of animals, either in a situation of freedom or in laboratory conditions. This scientific discipline is a double-edged sword, since certainly the interpretation of the empirical results depends, to a great extent, on the person who observes them.

That is why humans have been blamed on multiple occasions for "humanizing" animals. When we see a viral video of a cat massaging the carcass of another feline that has been run over, is it trying to revive it, or is it just settling on a furry surface that is still warm? Although it sounds cruel, in many cases the evolutionary mechanisms do not understand empathy and understanding.

For this reason, and since we are moving on a “glass” surface of knowledge, it is necessary that we narrow the term consciousness itself before continuing.

On conscience

According to the Royal Spanish Academy of the language, one of the most appropriate meanings of the term would be "a mental activity of the subject himself that allows him to feel present in the world and in reality", or what is the same, the individual's ability to perceive external objects and differentiate them from events resulting from their internal functioning.

This complex term encompasses other ideas, as there are other psychological events that are sometimes used as synonyms or related. We give you some examples:

Awareness of your surroundings (awareness): ability to perceive objects, events and sensory patterns. In biology it is about the cognitive response to an event.

Self-knowledge: the ability of an individual to separate from the environment and other living beings, as well as the ability to introspection.

Self-awareness: an acute type of self-awareness, where concern and reflection for the individual state arises.

Sentience: the ability to perceive or experience situations or events subjectively.

Wisdom: the ability of an organism to act with proper judgment, characteristic of an individual with intelligence.

Qualia: the subjective qualities of individual experiences.

As we can see, we are facing a terminological hodgepodge that escapes classical ethology and is submerged in the roots of human philosophy. For example, terms like self-awareness and self-awareness are in many cases interchangeable depending on who uses them. We leave the judgment to the readers whether or not to accept this variety of terminology.

The importance of the differentiation of being

There is no doubt that in the animal world, self-differentiation from external elements must be present in all living beings (at least vertebrates). For example, this discrimination is carried out at the physiological level on a continuous basis , since the immune system of animals identifies the external elements of its own being and fights them, such as viruses and bacteria that are harmful to the host.

Not everything boils down to a cellular level, as the differentiation between beings of other species and conspecific is also essential when interacting with the environment. 

If a prey is unable to differentiate its own species from potential predators, how could survival exist? Of course, without this basic capacity for differentiation, natural selection and evolution as we know them today would not exist.

But there are several thousand figurative kilometers away from differentiating a danger to self-awareness. Fortunately, there are some types of experiments that try to narrow these limits and get us closer to relatively definitive answers.

The mirror experiment

One of the most common tests when it comes to quantifying the level of self-awareness in animals is the mirror test. Designed by Gordon G. Gallup, this experiment is based on placing some type of marking on the animal that it cannot perceive when looking at its body, but that is reflected in its figure when exposed to a mirror.

The usual primary response in the animal is usually to treat its own reflection as if it were another individual, displaying defense responses or other social clues in the mirror. 

After this, however, certain animals such as higher primates, elephants or dolphins end up "understanding" that this figure is about themselves, and use the mirror to explore parts of their body that they had not been able to see before or to touch the image marked area, thus recognizing that they are able to correlate the structural modification they have undergone with the body that is reflected in the glass.

As far as birds are concerned, only Indian magpies and crows have passed this test successfully, not without a number of controversies to take into account. Some authors dismiss this experiment as being ethologically invalid and based on a flawed methodology. 

For them, this self-recognition test in the mirror is nothing more than a sensorimotor response based on kinesthetic and visual stimuli. It should be noted that the rest of the birds tested did not pass this test with positive results.

This means that birds have no general self-awareness beyond two or three isolated species, right? Of course not. For example, in experiments with gray parrots it has been observed that when it comes to discriminating objects, on some occasions, they are able to rely on the reflection of the mirror to obtain more information regarding spatial differentiation. 

That is, parrots are able to understand (at least to some extent) the difference between direct vision of an object and that perceived through a mirror.

Another example is the response of certain corvids to the presence of their own reflection. In the natural environment, these birds tend to hide their food more times when they are observed, since the risk of the food being stolen by another conspecific is higher. 

When these corvids were given food in front of a mirror, they showed typical behaviors in a lonely moment when handling food. If these animals were not conscious to some extent of their "own being", they would rush to protect their food for fear that the reflected individual would steal it, right?

A sea of ​​considerations

Despite the fact that the experiment of marking and the subsequent recognition of the individual's body in the reflection of the mirror has given disastrous results in almost all species of birds, certain birds have shown that they are capable of using mirrors and their own reflection in research of complex methodology.

Various scientific sources therefore postulate that this test may not be adequate in the world of birds. Perhaps they are not able to perceive themselves in the mirror, or perhaps their morphological and behavioral peculiarities (such as the absence of arms) prevent them from translating their mental process in a satisfactory way. 

If the adaptability of a fish to the environment is tested by putting it to climb a tree, surely the postulated result is that this animal is the worst adapted on Earth to any ecosystem.


As we can see, to the question of whether birds have self-awareness, we cannot give a sure and reliable answer. Yes, magpies have passed the reflex test and that is why in several scientific centers they are considered to be self-aware, but there are more and more detractors and skeptics of this methodology.

On the other hand, this is by no means to say that the cognitive ability of birds is questioned. Many of them are capable of solving complex problems and show neurological capacities similar to those of various primates, and the more the research methods are refined, the more it becomes established that consciousness in the animal world is more widespread than we initially believed.

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