( Dr. Theodore Xenophon Barber presents highlights from his book which documents that birds are aware, intelligent and shockingly like humans in numerous ways including their unique personalities, their comprehension of concepts and their flexible behavior. It also refers to the significance of avian intelligence for humanity’s relations with birds [and all animals.] A new paradigm and new approaches are proposed in animal studies.)

Editor’s note:

I recently read The Human Nature of Birds: A Scientific Discovery with Startling Implications by noted research psychologist T.X. Barber. The book had a powerful impact. It delightfully changed the way I perceive and understand birds and other animals. It also confirmed my belief that conventional comparative animal studies would enhance their effectiveness by using what I call "Scientific Anthropomorphism," the educated use of comparing humans with similar species.

After completing a thirty year career as a research scientist in one area of psychology, I turned my full attention to another research area– the behavior and psychology of animals with a primary focus on birds. Then, for six years I carefully observed birds as I read and continually thought about several hundred books and thousands of articles on avian capabilities that have been published since the 1960"s in the relevant journals of comparative psychology, ethology, ornithology and avian biology. As I analyzed this vast literature, I came to the shocking revelation that, in many well-conducted investigations, birds had demonstrated awareness and intelligence, and had also shown they have individual, unique personalities which at times remarkably resemble people. I also realized with horror, that researchers have been intimidated from clearly stating what their data show because the data directly contradict the "scientific" commandment against anthropomorphism---- "Thou Shalt Not See Animals As Resembling Humans!" I synthesized the research demonstrating unexpected avian capabilities in detail in a recent book (Barber 1993/1994). In this brief paper I will present a few illustrative examples from the voluminous data which lead to a new perception of the secret life of birds. Here are three examples:


The most thoroughly studied bird, a male African Grey Parrot named Alex, has lived virtually all of his 17 years semi-free in Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s (Pepperberg, 1986) research laboratories, first at Purdue and Northwestern Universities and now at the University of Arizona. He proficiently uses more than 100 English words correctly to refer to all objects in his laboratory environment that play a role in his life including his fifteen special foods, his gym, the shower, the experimenter’s shoulder and more than one hundred other things. He at times refuses the experimenter’s request ("NO!") and may tell the experimenter what to do ("Go away," "Go pick up cup," "Come here.") He also requests particular information ("What’s this?" " What’s here?" "You tell me." "What color?"). After Alex had learned to use the numbers one through six and had learned a triangle is "three-cornered" and a square is "four-cornered," he spontaneously and creatively called a football "two-corner" and a pentagon "five corner." In formal, tightly controlled experiments Alex is shown many objects in various combinations, and he answers correctly an astonishing number of questions regarding these objects, such as "What object is blue?" "What shape is [the object which is] wood?" "How many [are] wool?" And, "What color is the key?...truck?...block?...wool?...wood?" Since Alex never knows what questions he’ll be asked next, he must be able to carefully attend to and understand each question, and he must be ready at all times to answer questions regarding anything he has ever learned. Additionally, data summarized in The Human Nature of Birds, leave no doubt that Alex and other birds speak meaningfully, understand what is said to them, and are far more intelligent, far more like humans than modern humans imagine. People who lived close to nature in the past, and scattered native or tribal people living today, were, or are, aware that birds and other animals are much like people (Suzuki and Knudtson, 1992).


Psychologists at Harvard University (Hernstein and Loveland, 1964), have established that laboratory pigeons can use concepts in ways that have been considered uniquely human. Employing Skinnerian techniques to assess the pigeons’ ability to discriminate between different photographic slides projected on a screen, the researchers found that pigeons include under the concept of "human" both male and female humans of every race, culture, color, chronological age, and size. The pigeons also identify the back of a human head, a human hand or foot, and other parts of the human anatomy as "human," and they recognize a particular human under various "disguises" such as when the person is nude, or wears strange clothes, or is a tiny face in a large group photograph. Even more surprising, the pigeons had the concept of "man-made objects" (such as streets and buildings), "natural objects" (such as forests), and they even distinguished esoteric objects, such as equilateral triangles from other kinds of triangles.

Also, psychologists at Brown University (Blough, 1982) demonstrated that laboratory pigeons can learn to recognize each of the 25 letters of the English alphabet. Initially, the birds made the same kinds of mistakes as elementary school children— confusing C and G, and W and V.


Investigators (Griffin, 1974) were shocked to discover that migrating and homing birds find their way to their destinations by intelligently observing and integrating a variety of subtle information cues in nature which may include the apparent movement of the sun, stars, visual landmarks, the earth’s magnetic field, infrasounds, subtle orders, wind direction and cloud movements. Also surprising was the discovery that birds of the same species use different sources of information to navigate to the same destination and the same bird may use one informational source at one time and switch to another source at another time.

The evidence for the awareness and intelligence of birds provided by "hard" data (from experimental or laboratory studies) is corroborated by naturalistic investigations, especially when the investigators formed personal bonds or had friendly relations with birds. Here are two examples:


Bernd Heinrich, a professor of zoology at the University of Vermont, rescued a fallen nestling horned owl, whom he found buried in the snow following a late-spring snowstorm. He nursed the young owl back to health and guided him to the point where the owl could survive on his own. During three summers, the male owl spent part of his time in Professor Heinrich’s log cabin and most of his time in the surrounding woods. A close relationship with intimate play, enjoyment and subtle verbal and nonverbal communication developed between Heinrich and this rescued owl in spite of the consensus among ornithologists that great horned owls are "fierce, defiant and untamable, even when young" (Heinrich, 1987).

Professor Heinrich’s field notes contain many entries directly contradicting accepted notions of what is possible in human-avian interactions. For instance:

"Bubo (the owl) wakes me at 4:34 AM, by drumming on the window beside my ear. He joins me for breakfast, sharing some of my pancake...He hops onto the back of my chair, making his friendly grunts while I caress his head, and he nibbles [affectionately] on my fingers endlessly." (Heinrich, 1987)

"He plays rough, and so do I, but eventually he tires of it and lies down on my arms. Looking at the clock I see that we have played for one and a half hours. It seemed shorter than that... When I come back to the cabin he now always comes down from his sleeping perch to play.... Bubo comes to me and hops onto my leg. For a half hour we nuzzle, tickle and caress." (Heinrich, 1987)

"It is the many varied soft and hushed sounds that Bubo makes that I find most fascinating. I hear them only when I am next to him; they are his private sounds, reserved for intimacies... It is these intimate details that bond friendship and promote empathy and understanding, and you learn such things from wild animals by living with them." (Heinrich, 1987)

Bubo’s "friendly grunts" and "soft hushed, private sounds reserved for intimacies" are examples of a variety of great horned owl communications discovered in Professor Heinrich’s naturalistic investigation— communications of which ornithologists have been unaware. For instance, Heinrich discovered that Bubo had many different kinds of calls which had different nuances, each tinged with meaning.

Heinrich’s experiences and discoveries, presented in detail in his book, indicate that official scientific data gathering techniques may be inadequate and misleading when compared to data compiled in the course of a close relationship with a bird.


Len Howard, a musicologist, conducted an 11 year study of bird music (Howard, 1956) from a cottage in the English countryside. She provided food, water and nest boxes to attract wild birds. She approached them with "an open, calm, respectful attitude." When Ms. Howard began her investigation of bird song she did not believe birds were really intelligent; thus, she was surprised to discover they consistently acted intelligently once they had overcome their natural fear of her. She was even more surprised when she realized birds living in and around her open cottage were distinct individuals whom she could easily recognize and with whom she could form close relationships.

By treating birds with respect and using food to attract them into her home, Howard became intimately acquainted with numerous individual birds and was able to observe many birds over their entire lifetimes. Among the things she discovered are:

    • behaviors that had been viewed as stereotyped and rigid such as mating and parenting are actually variable, flexible and individualistic,
    • birds of the same species can be distinguished because, like humans, they each have distinct movements, postures, emotions, behaviors and personalities, and
    • birds of the same species, sex, and age, considered by ornithologists to be exactly alike, actually differ widely in intelligence, ways of behaving and social skills. For instance, Howard found although female great tits are not known to sing, a particular female great tit was a better singer than all of the male great tits observed during the 11 year project. Furthermore, this particular female did everything else well.

Following 11 years of close observation and intimate personal acquaintance with the entire lives of many birds, Howard concluded that birds are not at all what people think they are; instead, they are much like ordinary people with emotions, feelings, thoughts and personality.

Editor’s note: "I had a companion parakeet who had a daily relationship with a goldfish in a bowl. He would peek at one side of the bowl and the fish would come to that side of the bowl getting as close to the parakeet as possible— sometimes the parakeet would hang over the water and the fish would come to the surface. When the fish died (and a new one did not help), the parakeet showed depression with typical human symptoms of inactivity, quietness, loss of interest in others and his environment, and a lack of appetite."


Other kinds of research data, summarized in The Human Nature of Birds, also lead to the conclusion that our avian neighbors are much more like humans than scientists had dared to imagine. For instance, individual birds have acted flexibly (changed their behavior intelligently) in choosing their mates, in building their nest, in protecting and teaching their young, in defending a territory, and in other activities that were assumed to be stereotyped or instinctual. Also, birds have been reliably observed to make and use tools, to communicate with their flockmates via body language, calls and songs, to create musical compositions which are as aesthetically pleasing as those composed by human musicians, to play with joy, to mate erotically, to show parental concerns, and to form true friendships with birds of their own and other species and also with humans and other animals.

Furthermore, recent data which are not yet widely known regarding human instincts surprisingly show behaviors that characterize humans (such as walking bipedal, talking, laughing, and using hands and fingers skillfully) are as instinctual as typical avian behaviors (such as flying, nest building and migrating) and that both birds and humans implement their instinctual propensities in essentially the same flexible and intelligent way (Barber, 1993 & 1994).


After synthesizing the avian research, I ask, in the book, is consciousness and intelligence limited only to humans and birds? I then survey the research on a representative series of animals (apes, cetaceans, fish and hymenoptera) and I arrive at an astounding conclusion; all thoroughly studied animals, including not only apes and dolphins but also ants and bees, have demonstrated totally unexpected basic awareness and practical intelligence. These amazing discoveries range from the female gorilla, Koko, who uses more than 500 English words (in the hand-sign language of the deaf) to hold meaningful and interesting conversations with people (Patterson, 1979), to ants that flexibly carry out activities that humans mistakenly believe are uniquely human including communicating symbolically, building bridges and tunnels, farming (and even using fertilizer), caring for aphids like cattle which "milk" to obtain a sugary liquid, and literally carrying out warfare, slave raids, and even wrestling tournaments. (Wheeler, 1910)

In a series of ground-breaking books, Donald R. Griffin, (1976) had previously surveyed the research with animals (primates, birds, cetaceans, hymenoptera) and had arrived at a similar conclusion, albeit much more tentatively; he concluded that "suggested evidence makes it at least plausible that simple forms of consciousness thinking may be quite widespread" (Griffin, 1992). In fact, the conclusion that animals think, at least in a simple cause-effect way, was deductible from a philosophical analysis of causality (by David Hume and Immanuel Kant): our ability to infer causes for events is absolutely necessary for our survival and is a priori [innate or instinctual]; and, animals must also have this ability to infer simple cause-effect relations ("if this, then that"), to think at least in a simple way, because they too need to survive.


Implications for Humanity

The implications are tremendous. If, as the evidence indicates, animals are aware, and birds have human-like intelligence, emotions and personalities, then....modern humans have been fundamentally wrong about the nature of basic reality. Since they have been mistaken about their closest and most common wild neighbors, the birds, they need to reassess and reevaluate their presumed understanding of reality and their relationship to everything around them, beginning with birds and extending out to all animals and all of nature.

As the willfulness and awareness of birds and other animals penetrate to the consciousness of forthcoming generations, modern human cultural institutions, including science, philosophy and attribute intelligence only to humans; on the contrary, the next generation of scientists will be increasingly cognizant of the mindfulness and purposefulness of other living beings. No longer will philosophers philosophize with total disregard to the planet’s non-human animals, no longer will religions focus only on God and people while ignoring all other creatures. As people realize the true extent of awareness in animals, a new respect and reverence will enter into their relationships with the rest of the natural world.

Implications for Research

Although it may require one or more generations for humankind to understand the deep implications of animal awareness, the emerging understanding should impact more quickly on research with animals. The dominant behavioristic-reductionistic-positivistic paradigm in animal research distorts our understanding of animals. The implicit assumptions that underlie the paradigm make it extremely difficult for investigators to report without equivocation that their animal subjects behaved in ways modern humans believe are characteristic only to humans. While urging and stimulating researchers to look with an open mind at the possibility of conscious thought in animals, Griffin also emphasized under the dominant paradigm in animal research, students learn it is unscientific to ask what an animal feels or thinks. Researchers fear ridicule and excommunication from the scientific community if they interpret data as indicating conscious thought in animals, naturalists hesitate to write publicly about the mentality of the animals they study, and editors of scientific journals are quick to reject papers that do not adhere to the accepted paradigm.

The power of the dominant paradigm, for instance, its potency in blocking mention of the human-avian similarities, is overwhelming. As Thomas Kuhn and others (Kuhn, 1962) have taught us, the dominant paradigm defines what is normal and acceptable, what is out of bounds and is to be ignored, how the data are to be analyzed and interpreted, and even what questions can be asked and what kinds of answers are acceptable. Paradigms are based on explicit and implicit assumptions. For instance, the dominant paradigm implicitly assumes that animals are not like humans. The new paradigm will discard this null hypothesis and look freely at all possibilities, including the possibility that animals are much like humans. Of course, the new paradigm will also discard the anthropomorphic commandment which unscientifically, dogmatically restricts what scientists are permitted to perceive, think and publish.


Let us now glance at a few of the research methods and procedures that will come to the fore with the new paradigm.

Like Professor Bernd Heinrich, researchers will more often be in the role of participant observers. They will form relationships with the animals they study. They will, of course, refer to each animal by a personal name. They will discontinue confining animals and treating them as prisoners. When birds are subjects in laboratory experiments, Alex will serve as a model— each bird will be treated at least as well as Alex.

Researchers will view their animal subjects as partners in research. They will recognize the "tight" laboratory experiment that is supposed to eliminate extraneous stimuli, is itself a highly negative, impactful stimulus, resulting in artificial and distorted data. They will recognize the animals in these experimental situations are typically fearful and depressed, and that the animals’ negative feelings distort the results. Reports based on careful observations of individual animals, which the dominant paradigm now tends to belittle as anecdotal and anthropomorphic, will be accepted without hesitation as useful data for understanding animals.

More important, the intelligent awareness and unique personalities of individual birds can be directly perceived by researchers and by every other interested person who follows the procedures that have been used previously by individuals who succeeded in befriending birds. These procedures, which I describe more fully in the book, include feeling wild birds while approaching them in ways to minimize their fear of humans, and forming bonds with baby birds who have been gently hand fed. However, to perceive the humanlike nature of birds (and other animals) one has to really know the animal. Franz de Waal, who has vividly demonstrated the humanlike characteristics of chimpanzees in his book, Chimpanzee Politics, points out, " Everyone can look, but actually perceiving is something that has to be learnt. This is a constantly recurring problem when new students arrive. For the first few weeks they ‘see’ nothing at all. When I explain to them at the end of an aggressive incident in the colony that [male chimpanzee A] rushed up to [female chimpanzee B] and slapped her, whereupon [B and her female friend, chimpanzee C] joined forces and pursued [A], who sought refuge with [his strong male ally, chimpanzee D], they look at me as if I am mad... It is necessary to be completely familiar with the many individuals, their respective friendships and rivalries, all their gestures, characteristic sounds, facial expressions and other kinds of behavior. Only then do the wild scenes we see actually begin to make sense," (De Waal, F., 1982). The same kind of... subtle knowledge of an individual bird’s friendships, rivalries, body gestures, characteristic sounds, and facial expressions are necessary.... before researchers truly see "the human nature" hidden in birds and the basic awareness and intelligence that can be perceived in animals.

Until researchers begin to personally see the human-like qualities of animals, animal rights advocates (including Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) will be fighting to no-win, endless war. How researchers treat animals depends in the final analysis on how they perceive them. If they see animals as resembling unconscious, instinctual robots, they will not be concerned if their subjects experience confinement, social isolation, and stimulus deprivation or are fearful, depressed, unnatural, or blocked from expressing their potentials. However, when researchers personally perceive their animals actually have the essential characteristics of modern humans (wrongly) attributed only to humans (feelings, emotions, awareness, mentality), they will ipso facto treat their animals humanely and ethically. They will be concerned and assure the animals maintain good health, use their muscles and body appropriately, not be afraid or depressed, and be as natural as possible in their surroundings and in their interactions with others. 

Read more about Dr. Theodore Xenophon Barber by clicking here!



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Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Science
Ashland, Massachusetts

Dr. Barber lived his early life in two very different places. He grew up partly in Samothrace, Greece, a mountainous island with two thousand people of whom nearly a third were his close or distant kin. The way of life in Samothrace was markedly different from Martins Ferry, Ohio, where he spent the other part of his early years. In Greece he lived near four illiterate grandparents who appreciated their mountain water, sheep’s milk, eggs, barley bread, their donkeys, and olive trees. In Ohio he lived in the middle of a polluted factory town with few trees and barely any animals. These two sides of his life influenced his later careers as a researcher.

For more than thirty years he was one of the two or three most active and noted researchers working in the specialized area known as "the psychology and psychophysiology of hypnosis." He completed his work in this area after he had published four books and more than 180 journal articles on the topic. His career as a major researcher in hypnosis is now history. The recent authoritative history that thoroughly covers research in the area (A. Gauld, A History of Hypnotism, Cambridge University Press, 1992) concludes that "Barber has had a stronger influence on both conceptual and methodological aspects of contemporary hypnotism than any other worker" and entities its final chapter "Barber and Beyond" with subsections on "The Barber Revolution" and "Barber: The Post-Revolutionary Phase."

After completing work in one research area he turned to another interest that went all the way back to his early life in Samothrace, Greece. His close-to-nature life there allowed him to be open to the possibility that animals, including birds, are intelligent, aware, and mindful. He began intensive research in comparative psychology by reading, analyzing and synthesizing the myriads of studies on bird behavior that have been conducted since the 1960's. Over a period of six years, he realized that (a) the research data show birds are conscious and intelligent, (b) this fact is revolutionary for (modern) humans’ understanding of reality and their place in nature, and (c) researchers in avian behavior are blocked from clearly stating what the research data demonstrate by the common belief that birds are not intelligent and by commandment against anthropomorphism. The book, The Human Nature of Birds, was then begun and the highlights of the rest of the story are summarized in the above article.

The above article is reprinted with the kind permission of Dr. Theodore Xenophon Barber. 

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