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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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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