Can a Bird Reason?

An American naturalist argued that it can.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

“Some animals can be taught to do a great many things, but none can reason or contrive like man. They are guided in all they do by what is called instinct. Birds build their nests by instinct. They do not build them now any better than they did a thousand years ago,” etc., etc.

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The above very dogmatical and very positive assertion may be found verbatim et literatim in a certain once popular school-book. The same in substance, if not in form, has been taught as indisputable truth to generation after generation, so far back that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. Yet that it is true, that animals are not unfrequently guided in the most manifest manner by reason, and that birds do—at least some of them—build their nests a great deal better now than they did much less than one thousand years ago, we are prepared to maintain as demonstrable and indubitable. We do not, however, propose to inflict upon the readers of the Atlantic any long or tedious metaphysical arguments upon the trite topic of “reason versus instinct.” We do, however, propose to show, by a very brief essay of facts, that we have here, in North America, an entire family of birds, all of whose members, with hardly an exception, have undergone or are now undergoing complete change of habit since this country was settled by the white man. They have, all of them, been taught to avail themselves of the society, protection, and aid of man, and they all now build their nests in a manner very different from, and in many respects greatly superior to, that in which they were enabled to build before the dwellings of civilization appeared on this continent.

I refer of course to the swallow family, in which are included, besides the true swallows, the martins and the “bank-swallows,” or “sand-martins,” as they are sometimes called. Of these there are seven in all, inhabiting different parts of North America.

The most common and best known to us of New England is the so-called “barn-swallow.” Of the general habit of this graceful and beautiful bird our space will not permit us to give our readers any details further than relate to its entire change of habits caused by the settlement of the country. There is ample evidence that less than two hundred years ago this species, now so abundant, and found in every farmers barn throughout this extended land, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from Florida to the settlements of the Hudson Bay Company or the distant Yukon and Anderson Rivers, was comparatively rare and infrequent, and only found in localities where overhanging cliffs, huge piles of boulders, or cavernous rocks enabled it to build in places of shelter and comparative safety. Even now, among the caverns of the Pacific Coast Range, and in the wilder limestone countries, where various openings occur among the rocky cliffs, there the original unchanged swallow may still be found plastering his simple mud nest against the caverns roof or under some projecting ledge. But everywhere else these birds have been taught and educated into a new life by contact with civilized man, and this has lasted so long that we have wellnigh lost sight of the fact that our own Swallows’ Cave at Nahant was once peopled by these fairy forms. Now, everywhere in warm and comfortable barns, under the shelter of hospitable roofs, these swallows build their curiously elaborated homes. And what an improvement they all are upon the structure of the wild untaught swallow! Not the least remarkable peculiarity is a projecting solid platform built out on the edge of the nest, upon which the affectionate husband attends, and watches over his partner in her maternal duties. Is this all instinct? Is it not rather a high order of self-educating reason, in plain and cogent contradiction of the old dogma we have quoted?

Even more remarkable and far more recent are the changes which contact with man have taught the Rocky Mountain swallow. For a long while this swallow dwelt in distant solitudes, afar from the dwellings of the white man. There on the sides of high and rocky cliffs he constructed a very curious and a very elaborate nest. It was in shape like the retort of the chemist, the bulb of which was affixed to the rock, and the entrance to it was through its long tube-like neck that hung down below. It was a peculiarly social swallow, and wherever found existed in large colonies of often many thousands of pairs. It was met with by Major Longs party in 1820, and about the same time was found by the ill-starred Sir John Franklin in his first Arctic journey. Five years after they made their first appearance at Fort Chippewayan, in 1825, and there we have the first recorded instance in which these birds built their nests under the eaves of dwelling-houses within the Arctic circle. Trading-posts had been in existence in those regions a century and a half, yet now for the first time this swallow placed itself under the protection of man within the widely extended lands north of the Great Lakes. What could have thus suddenly called into action that confidence in the human race with which the Framer of the universe has endowed this species and all the swallow tribe? Was it not education, experience, and reason?

Once taught the greater convenience and safety of the sheltering eaves of houses for its breeding, the example became contagious; and now all over our continent, from Pennsylvania to the Arctic seas, and from Newfoundland to Oregon, these swallows abound about the dwellings of man. We know of no authentic record of their breeding thus upon houses within the limits of New England before the year 1837, though De Witt Clinton found one pair thus breeding at White Hall, on an outbuilding near a tavern, in 1817. The next year there were seven pairs, the third year twenty-eight, and the fourth year forty. In 1822, when Governor Clinton published his paper, there were seventy pairs thus nesting.

The writer first met with these birds in 1839, in Jaffrey, N. H., where a large colony had settled only the year before, under the eaves of an old church in the centre of the village. Three years before these same birds are said to have made their first appearance at Burlington, Vt., in large numbers. In 1842 a large colony settled in Attleborough, Massachusetts, and a few pairs also appeared in various parts of this State. One pair built on the front of the Boston Athenæum, and continued so to do for several years. We have said that originally their nest, when built in exposed places, was like the retort of the chemist, the entrance from below through a long tubular opening. This was a necessity for protection against the weather, and also against their enemies, so long as they nested in exposed places. But since these birds have placed themselves under the protection of man, they have found that there is no longer any need of all this superfluous architecture, and the shape of their nests has been gradually simplified and improved. In on one of the islands in the Bay of Fundy, the writer met with a large colony whose nests, on the side of a barn, were placed between two projecting boards put up for them by the friendly proprietor. The very first year they occupied these convenient quarters every one of these sensible swallows built nests open at the top, discarding the old patriarchal domes and narrow entrances of their forefathers. How much of instinct was there in this instantaneous change of habit? Not a particle, say we. It was pure, unadulterated reason, and nothing else.

The well-known purple martin before and for a long while after the settlement of this country, wherever found, built in hollow trees and in ledges of rocks. In wild localities, and in newly settled portions of this country, this martin does so still. But wherever the country has been long settled, and man has sought to attract its society around his dwelling by providing it any form of shelter, there we find the purple martin occupying martin-houses, building in porches, under piazzas, and even in the rudest forms of shelter offered by the Southern black man, — in the hollow gourds and calabashes put up for them by the humble dwellers in log-cabins. In his transition from his wild, uncivilized life, and in accepting the hospitalities of man and conforming his life to his improved situation, the purple martin seemed to assume new duties, and to take upon himself the guardianship of the barnyard in which he had been invited to dwell. The great value of these services to the dove-cotes and poultry-yards were soon recognized. Not a hawk, nor an owl, nor an eagle, nor any bird of prey dared to approach that barnyard which enjoyed the protection of the purple martin. No bird is now more welcome, and no one better deserves that hospitable welcome. But was it instinct that taught this bird entirely to change his habits and his wild nature, and to cultivate the society of man, and protect his poultry, any more than it was instinct that prompted man to meet the martin half-way, to bid him welcome, and to put up for him convenient houses? The one was as purely reason as the other.

The white-bellied swallow, better known here in Boston and vicinity as the martin, — which, of course, it is not, in ninety-nine hundredths of America probably, — still prefers the normal habits of its race, and breeds in hollow trees. At Easptort and among the islands of Grand Manan, in 1850, all efforts to tempt them to build in martin-houses had been a failure. They were old-fashioned and slow to change. Yet here in Massachusetts, and all along our coast even to the Penobscot, these birds have gradually learned to usurp the boxes intended for the purple martins, and now in Boston they have nearly if not entirely driven their relatives away. They come on earlier in the season, — the earliest of all the swallows, — and are in full possession before the later martins appear and are “too late.” Those that thus build near the dwellings of man seem to have utterly changed their nature, and from being among our wildest are, here at least, among our most tame and confiding birds.

Its nearest kith and kin, the violet-green swallow of the Pacific coast, is almost an exception to our rule, so generally do all of its race adhere to their original wildness and to their primitive habits. This is a species that very rarely breeds in hollow trees, and does not affect a wooded country, but prefers wild and rocky tracts, and selects for its homes crevices in rocks. Only very recently have the emigrations from the East reached the regions these birds inhabit, yet the period has been long enough to demonstrate that, after all, this, the wildest of its family, will in time imitate its relatives, seek the shelter of man, and conform its habits to a new life. Already in the settlements of mining communities in Nevada, Montana, and Idaho instances are not wanting in which this swallow has sought out holes and crevices in the walls of hastily constructed buildings, in which it constructs its nest. As settlements increase and old buildings multiply, it is more than probable that the swallows of the Pacific will in time be educated into a full and complete confidence in the protection of man, and that a change in their habits will become more general and noticeable.

Of the sand-martins we have two kinds. The common sand-bank swallow, which is cosmopolitan, found over all the world except Australia, has undergone no apparent changes in its modes of nesting, using holes excavated by itself in the sides of sandy bluffs. The only change noticed is that these swallows are no longer confined to the banks of rivers or bluffs washed by the sea. The numerous excavations made everywhere by man have increased their numbers and have brought them more closely into communion with civilized life. The other species, the rough-winged swallow, is exclusively North American. It is a bird of a very peculiar conformation, one side of each feather of the wings being provided, instead of the customary soft plumage, with hard horny points. The natural habits of this species prompt it also to breed like the sand-martin in holes excavated by itself in sand-banks. But this habit it has already learned to abandon, and to seek for itself more accessible, better protected, and more desirable places of shelter made for it by man, or if not made for this purpose, seized upon by it and adapted to its needs.

Thus it will be seen that, of the seven kinds of the swallow family inhabiting North America, all but one are known to have undergone a more or less complete and radical change of life, seeking the protection and companionship of man, — all do this without exception, — and making great and important changes in their nesting, both as to location and architectural structure.

We venture to submit these few but striking facts to the consideration of the reader, and we fully believe he will agree with us that they overthrow the antiquated dogma that birds do not and cannot contrive or reason, or that all they do is but the prompting of a blind and unalterable instinct. The facts we have adduced, and the changes of life they indicate, evince a progress which can only be explained by the innate presence of something higher and more intelligent than a blind, unreasoning faculty. Nor are these evidences of reason confined to the swallow family. We see its manifestations in the change of life and habits of even the proverbially not over-intelligent gull, which at Grand Manan, taught by generations of persecutions, and robbed of its eggs with ruthless greed by man, no longer nests on the treacherous shore, but with its clumsy webbed feet builds itself a nest in high and inaccessible forest-trees. We see it, too, in that intense caution, miscalled cunning, with which that poor persecuted benefactor of the farmer, the crow, is compelled to guard his hunted life. This caution has been taught him by the severe lessons of experience and by his own powers of reason. It is foreign to the crow’s nature. In Nova Scotia, where our absurd prejudice against the crow has no existence, we may still find this same species as familiar and as fearless as our common robin here in Massachusetts. And at the West, in Iowa for instance, where the farmers appreciate their value and welcome them as friends, there also we find the natural, untaught, confiding crow. We might go on and multiply similar instances, but here we are content to rest our case.