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

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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