Birds in the News

Everyone Called This Bird a Narcissist, But Really It's Just Misunderstood

This Bush Stone-curlew became a punchline after spending too much time gazing at its own reflection. So, what was it thinking?

We’ve all been there: That moment when you catch your own reflected gaze in a nearby windowpane and find yourself transfixed. Last month, in Brisbane, Australia, a Bush Stone-curlew had the same experience. But when the time came to continue on its journey, the bird remained hypnotized by itself.

For hours—eight hours, by some estimates—it checked out its own reflection in a glass building while occasionally shuffling from side to side. The episode was so prolonged that Caitlin Raynor, a volunteer with the rescue non-profit Wildcare Australia, posted a hand-written explanatory sign above its head.

“I'm a bush stone curlew,” the sign read. “I’m fine. I just like to stare at myself in the window.”

The image went viral. The internet rather predictably dubbed the bird a narcissist, launched a Facebook page, and turned it into a series of memes.

As it turns out, this birdie wasn’t crushing on itself: It likely believed its reflection was another Bush Stone-curlew. Birds perceive and process reflections as continuations of their world, which is why every year, hundreds of millions of them collide with windows and buildings, often fatally. From a bird’s perspective, the reflection of green leaves is indistinguishable from actual green leaves; likewise, the reflection of a stone-curlew is indistinguishable from an actual living bird.

Some bird species are less passive when faced with a mirror image, however. Northern Cardinals, for instance, will sometimes peck aggressively at their reflection because they confuse it with a rival bird. Stone-curlew, on the other hand, “are social, long-lived, and have reason to be interested in another curlew,” says John Marzluff, an avian-cognition expert at the University of Washington. That sociability could be why this bird, while not adventurous enough to approach the stranger, didn’t attack it either.

Reflections appear to be a common problem for the species. Raynor told the Australian Broadcasting Commission that she gets phone calls fairly regularly about the behavior. “People say there's a bird standing in a corner and automatically you know it's going to be a curlew” staring at itself, she said. “Their defense is not to run away . . . just stand still and pretend people can't see them." In which case it’s possible the bird wasn’t even preoccupied with a possible flockmate—it was simply afraid, and waiting for a moment to escape.

So how do we know that the bird wasn't admiring itself? Quite simply, it would probably have behaved differently. Marzluff has experimented with mirrors to see how animals respond to their own reflections. The best signal that an animal can recognize itself, he says, is if it tries to use the mirror as a tool to observe body parts it usually can’t see. A bird twisting to look at the back of its head or opening its mouth—“that would be really cool,” Marzluff says. But despite tentative evidence of magpies and crows using mirrors as humans do, no bird has yet proven itself to be truly self-aware.

And that goes for this bird, too. Narcissism requires self-awareness, which requires some sort of intelligence. And “curlew aren’t the smartest animal in the world,” Marzluff says, “that’s for sure.” 

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