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Watching Pigeons

Individuals

Sitting in a restaurant looking out at the city I see pigeons on the skyline. Here the skyline is really close - its the edge of the building across and the higher one behind it. Not a horizon. And there there are pigeons - I see them as silhouettes - strutting and preening. The sexual dance is really obvious and surprisingly human. Ya got these ones obviously male strutting towards others who coyly walk away while looking over their shoulders. (Yes - silhouettes carry that much information)

Here's the question - are those birds responding to each other as individuals? Do they recognize each other? Did THAT male come to that rooftop to find THAT female?

That's the way it is with people. It sure is the way with me - Elaine is my love and the question here is whether love is a capacity that only people have? I'm not trying to be anthropomorphic here. What is interesting here is not how much pigeons are like us - instead it's how much we are like pigeons.

Let's imagine that the pigeon pair are in love - they recognize each other and want to be together. They would behave as they seem to - preen and court and then mate and have chicks. But there is another alternative - maybe all male pigeons are cads - willing to do whatever they need to do to get a fuck in. Some people are like that too The difference between people and pigeons is that we make buildings that pigeons strut on.

For the pigeons, cities are wonderful places full of cliffs and niches. I wonder if they even notice us. But one perspective would be to think that pigeons have done a great job of co-opting humans to create an ideal pigeon world And while humanity has been a disaster for many other entities - pigeons burgeon in the world we create.

There's a lot to be learned from watching pigeons because they are so similar to us. We know just what is going through those bird brains as they strut and fluff. And tiny as those brains are they can do amazing things - like see and hear and smell Some can navigate long distances reliably. Imagine being brought hundreds of miles and being released and flying home. We can imagine that pretty easily because we can find our way home too. Pigeons and people are made of almost exactly the same sort of stuff. Meat and bone.

And the structural similarity is apparent - when you build with meat and bone a certain structure is forced - a skeleton of bone with joints and muscles pulling on them. All created by a growth process mediated by DNA . When watching pigeons one is struck by the apparent lack of concern with purpose among them. They are just doing their thing - one damn thing after another - without embarrassment or boredom.

Or do they? They are so much like us in many ways why would we think they are different in this regard? How do I know that the female pigeon isn't embarrassed to death by this puffed bird pestering her? These birds are doing stuff all the time. They are never still. They are always actively involved in their lives - why would I think that they don't feel that they are doing things for their own reasons just like we do?

When you think about it like that isn't the ancient attitude that people are fundamentally different from other forms of life a bit odd? Then again maybe not. A bit of self observation reveals that we think that those that we can't talk to are fundamentally different from us.

We see that other people are much like us - but if we can't talk to them we tend to treat them as unconscious and purposeless. I've had a pretty vivid experience of that in my own life. I live in what is reputed to be "the poorest postal code in Canada". An inner city evironment with lots of poor people and mental illness and drug addiction - the street is pretty chaotic.

For a long time I just moved through that chaos without interacting with the people much - as I moved among the pigeons. Then I started working as a cashier in the bottle depot - and after I got through the initiation where people were measuring me - these became people I smiled and talked to every day. It transformed my experience of my neighborhood.

When I'm outside here I'm not locked in my own private space stepping around threatening wierdos. Instead I'm in a welcoming place where people cheer about my beard from across the street. I don't expect to have that sort of relationship with pigeons no how much I watch them.

I do recognize a lot of the birds now though. Each one is actually quite distinctive. My old friend John was a naturalist who knew his environment in an amazing way. He had a stylized way of waving at the ravens as they flew by One day he was many miles from home and he waved at a raven - it recognized him! He could tell because it did such a big double take that it fell in the sky!

By watching, by curious seeing, we learn.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.