Stakes and Ladders

by Brooks Riley

The Alps are much grander this morning. I like to think they tiptoed closer in the night, but it’s only an optical illusion created by a local high-pressure system called föhn, which magnifies them and everything else on the horizon. Sitting outside in the loggia, a spacious recessed balcony that resembles a box at the opera, I am audience to many forms of entertainment—weather theater, rainbow theater, sunrise theater, moonrise theater, but best of all, avian theater with its motley cast of bird species performing their life cycles like variations on a theme, in full view.

To really see, sometimes you must simply sit still. You sit still and let it come to you—a thought, an image, a realization, a metaphor, an epiphany, a living creature. High up in a fourth-floor aerie, I see things I never would have noticed in the thick of life when I bustled among my own kind in cities overwhelmingly populated by my own kind. Now I see birds. Watching their performances, I see their consciousness as clearly as I recognize my own. I don’t need to make eye contact to know that they see me too, like actors aware of an audience. It’s an empirical observation but there are stories to back it up. In the great debate over animal consciousness, sometimes less is more, sometimes what you see is what you get, not what you’ve gleaned from neurological mapping or fancy tests. Science and philosophy merely obfuscate the obvious.

Any view can become tiresome over time. The eye begins to explore the details. Up here in the loggia, it is the birds that came into focus, performing center stage on a ladder that runs up the side of a thick chimney across the street. There’s not one bird in the neighborhood who hasn’t perched atop that ladder for whatever reason—ravens, turtle doves, magpies, merles, even a great tit or two. They come with dramaturgy, poignant narratives of survival strategies and competition, of empathy and antagonism, of mutual need and sharing, of joy—the stuff of life no matter what species you belong to.

Lately, that ladder has begun to look metaphoric: It’s a ladder to nowhere, or so it would seem, although it was put there for the chimney sweep. But it can assume Darwinian significance, suggesting an evolutionary ladder leading nowhere, or into oblivion or extinction, depending on how you look at it. It’s tempting to ask, ‘Is that where we’re headed?’  That ladder could also serve as a personal metaphor, a life arrived at the last rung. (The town where I live has built what it calls a ‘ladder to heaven’ in its magnificent park, a ladder that ends directly over the fat, lazy stream that meanders through town. If heaven is watching water flow by under your feet, the metaphor might make a case for the here and now, not the great hereafter.)

The Eurasian magpie has reached the top of its evolutionary ladder within the clever family of corvids. Corvids are the avian equivalent of primates; a magpie is to corvids what human beings are to primates. Smarter than crows, ravens, jackdaws or jays, a magpie can count up to 7, can recognize itself in the mirror, is endowed with episodic memory, can remember people, and it knows how to grieve. It mates for life and it’s won the beauty contest by channeling Karl Lagerfeld—a vision in black, with white embellishments and a ridiculously long tail. With both beauty and brains, the magpie seems to have won the genetic sweepstakes. But no. Its voice is unpleasant, it can’t carry a tune, and it can’t fly straight either, hampered by that exclamatory appendage which is longer than its body and for which there is no logical explanation. Watching a magpie fly is like watching a runway model teetering over cobblestones in 7-inch heels. That tail is both the problem and the solution to its issues on the ground as well. Sometimes it flicks its tail high in the air, using it for balance the way a tightrope walker uses a pole. Sometimes it just drags its tail along the ground like a broom, scooping up dust and dirt along the way.

Magpies have gotten a bad rap. Contrary to popular wisdom and Giacomo Rossini (The Thieving Magpie), bling is not their thing, and when it comes to stealing, it’s only songbird mothers who need fear when a magpie gets too close to their young. Magpies possess a burning curiosity about nearly everything, a trait that folklore has traditionally demonized in other animals as well—cats, ravens, or any creature who seems to know more than we do, or whose behavior seems to mock our own. As the only bird to recognize itself in the mirror, the magpie has been certified by the scientific community as possessing consciousness—a rare, reluctant nod to animal presence of mind.

Human beings have staked their claim on that great Alp called consciousness, ruling it out for other species, even if we still don’t know exactly what consciousness is—like staking a claim to a piece of land without knowing what lies beneath. As we continue to gaze at our navels in our anthropocentric way, we fail to observe what is really going on far from the laboratories that do research on animal sense of self and other cognitive capabilities an animal might have. The sapiens part of our name is in danger of getting lost and confused in the dense overgrowth of its own theories of consciousness, choked by conflicting criteria and a stubborn sense of exclusivity, ignoring the obvious as it tries methodically to measure the treacherous terrain separating us from the critters.

Does it matter if animals can think? Does it matter if they have a sense of self? Apparently it does, if you see how long a recent article in the Atlantic, Scientists Are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition, remained on its trending list. It matters because we’ve nearly all had pets–dogs or cats, parakeets or rabbits, horses or hamsters, goldfish or turtles. We know intuitively which of these animals interacts with us and just how complicated such an interaction can be. Acute observers of human behavior, we can easily recognize these behaviors in our pets–their likes, their dislikes, their quirks and neuroses, their personalities, their strategies, and most of all, their intent. Several years ago, in an article about a cat, I argued that the defining characteristic of animal intelligence was intent. Substitute consciousness for intelligence, and intent becomes even more definitive.

Consciousness is a two-way street: Interaction between species—between us and the animals, for example—cannot be achieved unless each exemplar is endowed with consciousness, even of the most rudimentary kind. It may be a matter of degree, but animal consciousness is self-evident to the layman who communes with a pet, if not yet to the scientist on a quest for the elusive proof. Accusations of anthropomorphism don’t diminish the validity of simple but persuasive observations from the field.

Much of intent in the animal kingdom is devoted to instinct-driven survival behaviors such as hunting, foraging, finding a mate, child-bearing, child raising, food-gathering, and homemaking. But what of the other intents that fill the moments in between? What of the extracurricular intents that have no explanation other than the will of the creature itself to explore, or to play, or to take pleasure in the moment? I’ve seen a raven alone on that ladder practicing what looks like mindfulness, taking time off from the business of life for a full half-hour of stillness on top of the world—not looking around, just chilling.

I first noticed magpies when the merles had dropped from sight after their annual four-month-long concerto grosso.  A charm (a gulp, a murder, a tiding?) of magpies began regularly to land on the flat roof across the street, prancing along the edge, chasing each other away from a prized corner, strutting or preening like show-offs on their playground high above the madding crowd. From afar, magpies seem comic, playful, social, sassy, curious, carefree—a lot like us at our best. They often show up in twos, suggesting friendship, love, or at least a conversational acquaintance at the avian level. Because of their entertaining behavior, they are fun to watch. Still, it’s difficult to parse intent from a distance. What looks like fun might be in deadly earnest—theatrics with a purpose I simply cannot read, no matter how long I observe them.

Two such scenes from this avian theater could give Aesop or La Fontaine even more food for thought:

Beating the heat

Time: July 2018, during a heatwave.

Place: Chimney with ladder attached, across the street

Dramatis personae:

Corvus corax, two ravens

Pica pica, two Eurasian magpies


Two ravens are sitting on the points at the top of the ladder, their backs turned to me and their heads turned left, like synchronized posers. A magpie lands on top of the chimney and looks up at the two ravens. He begins to jump up and down, wildly flapping his wings, clearly intent on chasing the ravens away. The ravens don’t move. They don’t even turn their heads. A second magpie lands on the chimney and repeats the same maneuver, jumping up and down and flapping his wings, while the first magpie looks on. No reaction from the ravens. At this point I can almost hear the communication between the two magpies as they look at each other: ‘Maybe if we both try, they’ll go away.’ Sure enough, both magpies start jumping up and down and flapping their wings in unison on either side of the ladder. The ravens don’t move. They don’t even turn their heads. The magpies give up and strike the same pose as the ravens above them, their backs turned to me and their heads turned left. No one moves in this tableau. Now I get my opera glasses to take a closer look. What I see is astonishing and vaguely horrifying. All four bird beaks are wide open, all facing the same northeasterly direction. All four birds seem to be consuming a stream of cool air through their mouths.


What I learned from this story: What appears to be pecking-order discord among corvids turns out to be a serious battle for the only breeze in town.


Four species and a dilemma

Time: January 2019

Place: A small tree on the street where I live

Dramatis personae:

Homo sapiens, that’s me

Pica pica, two Eurasian magpies

Turdus merula, a European blackbird, aka merle

Felis catus, a sleek orange cat


Two magpies fly over from the roof across the street to the gable directly above the loggia where I am sittingpossibly to get a closer look at me. Moments later, they nosedive straight down past me. Hearing their crass chatter, I look over the railing to see four creatures in the small tree below: A lone merle near the end of a lower branch, two magpies on a higher branch, and in between, moving stealthily toward the merle, an orange cat. The magpies have chosen their branch wisely. The cat would need to maneuver several branches to reach them. The merle, facing the street, seems unaware of the danger and pays no mind to the magpie warnings. I decide to intervene, calling the cat: ‘Mieze, mieze’, German for ‘kitty, kitty’. The cat stops moving and looks up at me. I call him again in an affectionate tone of voice, more to distract than to scold him. ‘Mieze, mieze’. The cat continues to stare up at me and then, capitulating, backs down the branch to the tree trunk and scales down to the ground. The merle flies away, followed shortly by the two magpies.


What I learned from this story: Magpies are capable of empathy, swooping in like neighborhood vigilantes to rescue another species.

Orthis was my second thoughtthe magpies swooped down to get better seats for the grand guignol drama about to unfold, like gawkers at the scene of an accident.

What I didn’t learn from this story: Why didn’t the merle just fly away? What would have happened if I hadn’t intervened? To what lengths would the magpies have gone to save the merle? Why did the cat give up the hunt?

I will never be a birdwatcher. I will never acquire a set of binoculars and go off in search of avian diversity or activity. I simply don’t possess enough intent, and there are too many other things on my agenda that I intend to do, things that interest me more. But if a bird crosses my field of vision, I’m happy to watch him strut his stuff, grateful for the momentary pleasure and edification, knowing that we are equals in life, love, and yes, even consciousness. Birds are bit players in my theater, but I applaud them all the same, enthusiastically.