The Alien Avian
May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
Humans are social creatures, pack animals by nature, apex predators, and of course – mammals. It makes sense, then, that other apex predators, other mammals, and social apex predators in particular would translate more cleanly into human bodies, and be more recognizable. Perhaps this is part of the reason for the disproportionate number of wolves in the therian community, and of big cats.
In comparison, birds are alien creatures: of the sky and sometimes the ocean, with only rare species residing primarily on land (ostriches, emus, cassowaries, kiwi). They occupy a different sphere entirely, treetops and cliffsides and wind. They are hollow-boned, feathered, and beaked; they are egg-layers and nest-keepers.
Many people have a good grasp of body language and cues when it comes to mammals. Some of this is due to early and frequent exposure to cats and dogs, and some of it might be simply that the cues are similar to human ones: a mobile face, lips curling in a snarl for canines and humans both, eyes widening or narrowing, a hunched slinking posture when threatened or a big forward posture when threatening, and so on and so forth. We can read “feline”, we can read “canine”, and even “equine” or “bovine” are comprehensible with little previous exposure. The nuances might take study to learn, but beyond that, humans speak the same basic language as most other mammals.
Birds speak a different language. It might be motivated by the same things (fight/flight, fear/aggression, hunger, territory), but it doesn’t look the same. A bird’s expression doesn’t show in a mobility of facial features, but rather in the subtle pinning of pupils, in a gaping or clacking beak, fluffing of feathers (and there’s a difference between contented fluffing and a threat display) or slicking back of feathers, head-bobbing, head-weaving, preening, plucking…
Social birds are easier to relate to, and easier to study; they’re more motivated to communicate. It’s far simpler to study a parrot (and the psychology of african grays, for instance, seems similar to that of humans), which is a highly social flock bird, than to study a raven, which is social on a much smaller scope. Their intelligence may be similar, but it’s trickier to demonstrate the intelligence of ravens than it is for parrots, perhaps in part because so many of our measurements of intelligence (and methods of taking measurements) are based on intensely social, mammalian humanity.
Translate a bird into a human, and what do you get?
People often have a hard time reading my tells. It takes conscious effort and it’s taken a lot of self-training to make facial expressions, to display feelings and affect through standard facial (and vocal) cues. When I am not feeling well, I often don’t make the attempt at facial expressions, usually because I’m more focused on my mental state than on communication of that state – and in some respects, I think I fall into the behavior Tsu described: “an injured bird hides.”
When I am anxious or agitated, it shows in my physicality: shifting my weight from foot to foot, clenching and unclenching my feet repeatedly. Fidgeting with my scalp, short-shorn hair like pinfeathers and down, stress-preening, feather-picking. My eyes go wide and staring when there’s sensory overload, too much stimulation for hyperalert hawk-mind; my head swivels to look at every sudden motion. My breath rate increases, going rapid and shallow under intense stress; this is a normal physiological reaction for anyone’s anxiety, but it’s not joined by an anxious expression, it doesn’t display on my face. My face lacks emotional expression to the point where I have had coworkers, managers, and casual friends walk up to me when I am in the midst of a full panic, and they choose that moment in which to comment on how calm and laid back and mellow I always seem to be.
It’s not just stress and anxiety that manifest primarily in body language, either. Interest expresses as a sharpened intensity, hawk-stare, turning the entirety of my attention to a single point. Often my mind is split several ways, but when something trulycatches my attention, it commands all of it, all of my focus. I lean forward, my gaze is as still as my face; I fidget less. When fully engaged, fascinated, I become less animated, more still, more intent. I seem more serious when I’m very interested in something, razor-edged. Happiness is a softened gaze and fluffed phantom feathers; relaxed contentment means slower movement, increased comfort with physical contact, swaying side to side, limbs loose.
It’s different socially, too. This is more of a hawk thing than a general bird thing, because plenty of birds are highly social, flock creatures: parrots and geese and crows, to name a few examples, though I’m sure their form of socialization looks very different from mammalian pack dynamics (and I would love to hear the social perspective from a flock bird person at some point). Rough-legged hawk is a solitary bird, or pair-bonded at most, apart from sometimes roosting communally in winter territory and forming small flocks in migration. I understand group dynamics and hierarchy thanks to observation, study, and social psychology classes; it’s not an ingrained knowledge or an instinctive understanding. Thanks to being human as well as hawk, I am a social creature, and I need social contact and meaningful relationships in my life. However, socializing with people who are intensely hierarchical can be strange and stressful for me, and I react poorly to attempts at shoehorning me into a hierarchy in a group setting. (I deal with it better in a work environment, where I’ve learned to accept it and can see the efficiency around it; but in social, casual, or friend groups, I see no point to it and deeply dislike formations of hierarchy.)
I have no patience for dominance displays in general. Fortunately, I do not trip the dominance/hierarchy-aware instincts of most of my intensely hierarchical friends (wolf-people and even some cat-folk). That’s where I prefer to be, in a group setting: non-hierarchical, outside a hierarchy if one exists within the group, seen neither as a threat to dominance nor someone to be dominant over. It sometimes means I fit oddly in a group setting, or don’t mesh with the larger social fabric of a group; a part and apart at the same time. It can make finding meaningful, nourishing community difficult. Most of the time, though, I don’t mind.
A bird is not a mammal, and it’s hard to describe what it’s like as a bird in human skin when all our language is mammalian, when my body is heavy-boned and featherless, soft-faced, toothed instead of beaked. It’s like trying to translate a complex concept from German or Japanese when there’s no word for it in English: it takes paragraphs and pages to convey even half of it, and so much is lost in the translation even then. Bird is alien and other – closer, maybe, than reptiles with their cold blood and scaled thoughts; closer, perhaps, than the wet world of fish, or the colony-existence of bees and ants. Yet it’s alien in comparison to cats and foxes, wolves and horses, a psychological uncanny valley of almost but not quite comprehensible.