Quaker Universalist Voice

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Animal Consciousness

A Book Review of David Sibley, What It’s Like to be a Bird

What It’s Like to be a Bird by David Sibley(Knopf, 2020) is an addition to other books about human observation of other animals and plants. It follows "What is it Like to Be a Bat?" , a paper by American philosopher Thomas Nagel, first published in The Philosophical Review in 1974, and later in T. Nagel, Mortal Questions (1979), which presents several challenges posed by the consciousness of bats similar to consciousness in humans.

In this book on birds, Sibley shares a lifetime of observing birds of all kinds and his thematic conclusion is that birds have consciousness and show behaviors that are of the same kinds as the consciousness and behaviors observed in humans, resulting in an understanding of an expanded scope of human care for birds and other living things.  What does your bird watching tell you about the consciousness and behavior of birds?

The book is an attractive and lively catalog of observed repetitive instances of birds exploring and selecting among a range of choices on a constant daily basis, like humans.   Bird experience is conscious, rich, complex, and thoughtful. For Sibley, that is the universal reality of our human observation and experience.  Chickadees choose among seeds and discern to eat or store each seed. Pigeons bob their heads to adjust their vision to sustain focus on the goal ahead. Egrets manage optical illusions to select prey through water.

Sibley adds beautiful graphics to his narrative text.  This is what we all have come to expect in a Sibley book. Sibley follows in the defining tradition of James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson.

The book provides no index for reader reference.  

This book is not like a field guide.  It is a fine read, leading the reader to share the implicit conclusion of bird consciousness and shared behaviors with humans.

Quakers: There is no mention of Quakers in this book.  

Currently, Quakers have an implicit universalist perspective.  However, Quakers are not aggressively exploring the implications of that recognition of an expanding recognition of reality to include animals for their human daily practice and public policy advocacy.  Land conservation, habitat restoration, hunting, livestock neglect and mistreatment laws, child education, veganism, domestic pet indulgence, and car driving behavior are indications of a changing and enlarging perspective in practice.


  • How do Quakers talk to children about the characteristics of animals?
  • How have Quakers adjusted their attitudes and behavior toward animals through human generations?



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