River Terns, Emotions and Confusing answers!

This post is in response to some very ‘hazy’ topics in the ‘grey zone’ between science and philosophy! The following post by my friend Sudheendra about Black-bellied Terns triggered this response, which led to a wonderful discussion on the same.

Sudhee asked “…During my regular birding sessions……i encountered many water birds….encountered 3 River terns and One blackbellied tern…the river terns “tried to attack” me by making harsh screeching calls in flight, coming very close and taking sudden upflight, everytime i tried to go near the water body….the blackbellied tern was attacking the river tern without reasons..like the river tern was taking rest on the bank..this blackbellied tern tried to attack it from above..it did that several times! later when the river tern also got angry they had a chase where blackbellied tern with enormous speed was able to attack the river tern more fearlessly…..the river tern’s attitude of territory(?)awareness..or breeding resposiblities have not been given in salim ali…i even observed once a red wattled lapwing trying to attack a DOG when it was approaching (? ) its nest..the blackbellied terns’ attitude ignited a question in me …do birds have emotions..very basic emotions..like caring(love)..Fear..and Anger or those are only reflexes? can anybody enlight me more…NS?”

Your description is more indicative of a nesting colony of River Terns rather than ‘plain territoriality’. However, I wonder if the lake you talk about can accomodate breeding colonies of River Terns. Does it have open sand banks. Is it a perennial lake and was it big enough. The terns prefer sandy ‘river’ banks for nesting and they may be found nesting in colonies with Pratincoles or with other species of terns. Both the River and the Blackbellied being resident terns occupying almost similar niches, conflict over resource(nesting site, feeding site etc) would be a common occurence. Now coming to your Question on emotions and birds…Hmm…I think it is a question most asked and never adequately answered. Not answered adequately, not because of lack of information to answer them, but because of lack of belief. Such is our hobby (profession??) that it comes somewhere in the grey zone between art and science. I would divide birdwatchers into those with predominant artistic traits and those with predominant scientific traits. Where one says “Blessed are we to be able to appreciate natures beauty”, the other would attribute it to his trained eye! Where one experiences wonder and awe at the Peacock’s tail or the Minivet’s scarlet, the other sees Sexual Selection! Where one sees a remarkable plan and purpose in and eagle’s hunt, the other sees survival! Where one sees ‘love’ when two bulbuls cuddle, the other sees ‘breeding record’! Where one sees anger, the other sees ‘territorialiity’ And like you saw passion and aggresssion in the tern’s action, somebody else will see evidence of a nest and “nothing else”! And so, is the scientist better, because he knows so much more about the whys, hows and what nots? Well, that would be like comparing Alexander and Buddha! (There are no common standards for this comparison)
Yesterday evening during a walk, I was asked by somebody who has been watching(seeing!) birds for 11 years, whether, I could just look at them and not name them. It was then that I realised that I had compromised a lot on the artist front in arming myself scientifically. I realised that my mind said “Scarlet Minivet” when I saw one of the most wonderful birds flitting around and whistling. It will probably take some time to reawaken the part of me which does not conclude anything on seeing. So here is a lot of mumbo-jumbo instead of the answer to your question. Trust me, I have been there and have not found any answers. I am sure the above will help you in your journey to find the answer. Science is one route. It will give you all the explanations that perfectly fit your observations. But does that satisfy you. If you are now told that the terns are mere survival machines which are programmed to react the way they did under particular circumstances, would you be happy to take that answer, just because it is scientific?

Art is another. Just read a poem (I am sure somebody has ‘poetried’ on terns) and you will see that the artist is able to attribute numerous purposes and emotions to the tern’s actions. Read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and you will see how there can be a whole world of gulls with their
own beliefs and traditions. But, how can you prove it, you mind will ask! So, the question rings back. Did the tern have emotion? All we can do is only conjecture or write poetry. The truth is with the tern, and it does not want to tell you!

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