On my flight from Albuquerque to Houston last week, I read a fascinating little ditty in Southwest: The Magazine (October 2016) about horses having 17 distinct facial expressions. I was intrigued to learn that humans, by comparison, can make 27 discrete movements, chimpanzees 13, cats 21, and dogs 16.
I sat back in my seat (well, as far back as one can sit in an airplane seat) and wondered… how many facial expressions do birds have?
After several hours of online investigation, I found myself disappointed by the lack of research and expert opinions; seems information on this subject is as scarce as hen’s teeth. Eventually I found solace in an article by Jessica Bridgers, “Rats Understand & React to Facial Expressions of Other Rats, but What About Birds?”
Jessica explains, “A quick search of Google for ‘facial expressions in birds’ brings up many descriptions by those familiar with birds that confirm my observation: Yes birds do indeed have facial expressions. However, using the same search terms on Google Scholar shows that science has not yet caught up with this notion. This underscores the fact that just because an idea has not yet been scientifically tested does not mean that it is not true, and prods us to use the precautionary approach where hard evidence for animal sentience and cognition is not yet available.”
Her comments resonated with me and surprised me at the same time. I see hundreds of social media posts each week featuring photographic images of various facial expressions on birds, and that alone begs the question – why hasn’t there been any research on this? There is research on migration patterns of birds, the impact of birds on the environment, and how to save threatened bird species. Why has there not been any research on how birds use facial expressions to communicate with each other (let alone with us humans)?
After much thought and a few more searches, I finally agreed with Jessica’s conclusion that “just because no one has investigated whether birds have facial expressions yet does not mean they do not have them.” While research on this subject may be inconclusive, my gut tells me that birders around the world will agree that birds do have facial expressions. And I have pictures to prove it. Don’t you?