A Eurasian jay picks at a nut in northeastern Germany. Photo: Getty
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Jay joy: what it feels like for a bird

Attributing emotions to birds is not a flight of fancy. Emotions are a feature of evolution: they arose to help creatures navigate the world safely and with maximum reward.

What does it feel like to be a bird? Though this might be asked more often by children than by adults, it is a valid scientific question. In September, a Royal Society meeting on bird senses will seek an answer.

The aim of the gathering, in Buckinghamshire, will be to examine our understanding of how birds interact with the world – through all of their six (or more) senses – and even to gain insights into the kinds of emotional reactions they have to their surroundings.

Attributing emotions to birds is not a flight of fancy. Emotions are a feature of evolution: they arose to help creatures navigate the world safely and with maximum reward. Though it is hard to read joy in a jay, there is much evidence that birds experience negative emotions, at any rate, such as the expectation of harm or punishment. Though we might call it fear, we know nothing of a bird’s subjective state, so the scientists working in this field are reluctant to give it that label. Nonetheless, it is a useful area of research: further investigation might tell us things (things we might rather not know) about the state of mind of a battery hen.

The extra sense (or senses) available to birds are similarly tricky to explore. For instance, it is impossible for us to imagine what it is like to sense a magnetic field.

So far, mostly by playing tricks on robins, we have worked out that this sense requires certain inputs. It works only when the field has an intensity within a fairly narrow range. If the field is too strong, or too weak, the bird cannot navigate. The same problem arises if the sky is too light or too dark. The light at dusk, in which blue-green is the dominant colour, makes magnetic navigation easiest.

Most bizarrely of all, the light – for robins, at least – has to be seen with the right eye. Cover the left eye and a bird can still navigate. Swap the blindfold to the right eye and it will remain for ever lost. The best explanation at present for this set of working conditions involves some extremely intricate physics taking place in a robin’s retina – blue-green light seems to trigger changes at an atomic level in the right eye.

While we work out the details, there are plenty of other puzzles, such as what tastes good to a bird. Many animals have a smaller selection of taste receptors than human beings. Those that are exclusively carnivores don’t have sweet receptors. Giant pandas have a sweet tooth but are unable to register the taste of amino acids – also known (to us) as umami. Sea lions, dolphins and whales have lost a plethora of taste receptors and possibly have none left at all, so eating might be a purely functional, rather joyless activity for these creatures. Birds may be in a similar position. They have fewer taste buds than most mammals do, which suggests they don’t taste much at all.

Smell is another important sense for birds. Some sniff the air in order to find their way home. Homing pigeons deprived of their sense of smell are unable to navigate after release from an unfamiliar location. Others use smell to identify food sources.

More surprising is that birds can ascertain each other’s sex, species and identity just from its smell. Then there are the mate-attracting smells: crested auklets have a lemony smell that advertises their hygienic status. This citrus odour is associated with a resistance to infection by lice, a desirable trait in a potential mate.

So now we have the answer to the vexing question of how a bird smells – pretty good, sometimes. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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The “Yolocaust” project conflates hate with foolish but innocent acts of joy

A montage of selfies taken at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial layered above images of concentration camps risks shutting visitors out of respectful commemoration.

Ten years ago I visited Berlin for the first time. It was a cold and overcast day – the kind of grey that encourages melancholy. When my friends and I came across the city’s Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of over 2,000 concrete slabs, we refrained from taking photos of each other exploring the site. “Might it be disrespectful?” asked one of my non-Jewish (and usually outrageously extroverted) friends. Yes, probably, a bit, we concluded, and moved softly and slowly on through the Memorial’s narrow alleys.

But not all days are gloomy, even in Berlin. And not all visitors to the Memorial had the same reaction as us.

A photo project called “Yolocaust” has collected together images of the Memorial and selfies taken there that young people from around the world have posted to Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and Grindr. In the 12 photos featured on the website, one man juggles pink balls, a girl does yoga atop a pillar, another practises a handstand against a slab’s base. The last of these is tagged “#flexiblegirl #circus #summer”.

Most of the images seem more brainless than abusive. But the implication seems to be that such behaviour risks sliding into insult – a fear all too painfully embodied in the first image of the series: a shot of two guys leaping between pillars with the tag-line: “Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial.”

Grim doesn’t begin to cover it, but the artist who collated the photos has thought up a clever device for retribution. As your cursor scrolls or hovers over each photo, a second image is then revealed beneath. These hidden black-and-white photographs of the Holocaust show countless emaciated bodies laid out in mass graves, or piled up against walls.

Even though they are familiar for those who learned about the Nazi concentration camps at school, these historic scenes are still too terrible and I cannot look at them for more than a few seconds before something in my chest seizes up. In fact, it’s only on second glance that I see the artist has also super-imposed the jumping men into the dead bodies – so that their sickening metaphor “jumping on dead Jews” is now made to appear actual.

The result is a powerful montage, and its message is an important one: that goofy, ill-considered behaviour at such sites is disrespectful, if not worse. Just take the woman who urinated on a British war memorial, or the attack on a Holocaust memorial in Hungary.

But while desecration and hate should not be tolerated anywhere, especially not at memorials, does juggling fall into the same category?

I can’t help but feel that the Yolocaust project is unfair to many of the contemporary subjects featured. After all, this is not Auschwitz but the centre of a modern city. If public-space memorials are intended to be inhabited, then surely they invite use not just as places for contemplation, grieving and reflection but also for being thankful for your life and your city on a sunny day?

The Memorial in Berlin is clearly designed to be walked in and around.  Even the architect, Peter Eisenman, has been reported saying he wants visitors to behave freely at the site – with children playing between the pillars and families picnicking on its fringes.

So how do we determine what is offensive behaviour and what is not?

A section at the bottom of the Yolocaust website also suggests (in rather sarcastic tones) that there are no prescriptions on how visitors should behave, “at a site that marks the death of 6 million people”. Though in fact a code of conduct on the memorial’s website lists the following as not permitted: loud noise, jumping from slab to slab, dogs or pets, bicycles, smoking and alcohol.

Only one of Yolocaust’s 12 photos breaks this code: the first and only explicitly insulting image of the jumping men. Another six show people climbing or sitting atop the pillars but most of these are a world away in tone from the jumpers.

The blurb at the bottom of the webpage says that the project intends to explore “our commemorative culture”. But by treating the image of the yoga performer – with an accompanying montage of her balancing amid dead bodies – in the same way as the jumping men, the artist seems to conflate the two.

In fact, the girl practising a yoga balance could be seen as a hopeful – if overtly cutesy and hipster – act of reverence. “Yoga is connection with everything around us,” says her tag beneath. And even if climbing the slabs is frowned upon by some, it could also be read as an act of joy, something to cherish when faced with such a dark history.

In an era when populist German politicians are using the past – and sentiment towards Holocaust memorials themselves – to rev up anti-immigrant, nationalist feeling, the need for careful and inclusive readings of the role of memorials in our society has never been greater.

Yolocaust may have intended to provide a space for reflection on our commemorative behaviour but the result feels worryingly sensationalist, if not censorious. Instead of inviting others in to the act of respectful commemoration, has it risked shutting people out?

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.