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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser