Worldbuilding Avian Intelligence

Although humans are Earth’s only sapient species, the range of intelligence among animals is quite diverse. For a long time many assumed primates, the clade closest to humans, outclassed all others in intelligence. Now, however, it is much more widely known that several other species have intelligence that, while decidedly sub-sapient, is comparable to the smartest non-human primates. Dolphins are perhaps the most famous example, but the intelligence of the octopus demonstrates that cleverness is even found well outside the mammal range. This includes certain clades of birds, most prominently the corvids, or the crow family. This raises the possibility that birds or other flying creatures could plausibly attain sapience, since the comparably-smart primates actually did so.

Birds and other flying animals are a staple of worldbuilding, particularly in fantasy, for a good reason: there are few things cooler than a creature that can fly. For the same reason, flying creatures in fantasy settings are often large enough to carry a man, enabling humans or other ground creatures to share the benefits of going airborne. Flying creatures may also attain sapience themselves, with perhaps the most prominent example being dragons. Fantasy settings often contain magical or supernatural elements that obviate real-world laws of physics, but in a harder setting, including in science fiction, what would the prospects be for an avian intelligence?

Bird Brain: an Insult no longer

Sometimes it is assumed that brains must be a certain size before intelligence becomes a realistic possibility, and that smaller creatures wouldn’t have enough brain  mass. While there might be a lower limit somewhere, it appears that brain-to-body-mass ratio is far more important than absolute brain size, at least for any reasonably-sized animal. Blue jays, among the smallest members of the crow family, are about as smart as any other non-human creature. They are only 12 inches long and weigh a mere 3 ounces, indicating that sapience could probably be attained by a creature that size or larger. Many birds, including other members of the crow family, punch far above their brain weight as far as intelligence is concerned. Considering how much more efficient the avian brain apparently is compared to any mammal, perhaps “bird brain” should be a compliment rather than an insult!

There are, of course, other flying creatures besides birds, insects and bats being the extant ones. Insects and insectoids are outside the scope of this post, but as far as I am aware unlike birds bats don’t appear to have particularly high intelligence, though they also don’t seem to lag other mammals much, either. Extinct flying creatures, most prominently the pterosaurs, are something of a mystery, but some pterosaur species may have had relatively high intelligence considering the sort of lifestyle they led. Pterosaurs are in the archosaur clade, and so are more closely related to dinosaurs (and their bird descendants) and crocodilians than they are to mammals such as bats.

When worldbuilding, therefore, it seems that archosaurs (pterosaurs, dinosaurs, birds, etc.) are much more promising candidates for avian intelligence than mammals. This doesn’t mean that mammals couldn’t develop a higher avian intelligence, but rather that archosaur characteristics appear to be better suited to the task. With that said, what would an avian intelligence, leaning more on archosaurs (and especially birds) than anything else for our model, be like either on Earth or an alien planet?

The most intelligent species on Earth tend to be predators, since it takes more brainpower to hunt your dinner than it does to run away from danger. This is not a universal rule: elephants are among the smartest animals and are herbivorous, but it wouldn’t be stretching it to say that most sapient races out there would be meat-eaters. Another reason is that meat is more dense in calories and nutrients than plant matter, and is much easier to digest. It also helps that meat contains a large amount of fat, which nourishes the brain; humans have a lot of subcutaneous fat for a creature from outside the polar regions, and are the only species to find overtly-displayed subcutaneous fat sexually attractive. This is why the most beautiful women throughout time have had sumptuous curves (the famous ideal waist-hip ratio of 0.7 is one manifestation of this), and why women gain so much weight when bearing and nursing a child (a trend found to a lesser extent in other species).

Culture of an Avian Intelligence

So a plausible avian intelligence would probably be a meat-eater, either carnivorous or omnivorous, and be at least the size of a blue jay. It is likely that such a species would be a generalist in diet and environment as opposed to a specialist, as that is the trend among Earth’s most intelligent species. Hunting and gathering is the primordial subsistence strategy of man, and it seems likely that an avian intelligence would also adopt this strategy, especially considering that the smartest birds basically do it already. More purely carnivorous aliens of course would only hunt and not gather. The social structure would likely be similar to humans, a band of usually a few dozen individuals, most of whom are at least distantly related, since the most intelligent animals have a strong tendency to be at least somewhat social, the quite solitary octopus being an exception.

It is safe to assume that any sapient species would evolve language, so we should expect an avian intelligence to have the ability to speak. Birds on Earth have birdsong through the syrinx (as opposed to the mammalian larynx), so an intelligent bird would have a language based on birdsong. Other flying creatures’ abilities are more nebulous, but any archosaurian creature should be able to make sounds at least as complex as crocodilians, who don’t have any particular speech organ. This would be more than enough to make a language, although birdsong or even mammalian-type speech would be much cooler. Keep in mind that birds’ speech organs can replicate human speech quite closely, as in the famous case of the “talking bird” species. Also keep in mind that smaller creatures will tend to have higher-pitched speech and larger creatures will have lower-pitched speech.

Visual art in the Paleolithic was sometimes done in caves, leading to the famous cave paintings, but it is thought that more ephemeral media were employed more often that simply weren’t preserved, such as outside rocks and animal skins. An avian intelligence would be able to go into caves and paint art, probably more easily than a human could; likewise rocks and animal skins would be easy. Sculpting might prove more difficult, as it’s harder to fly extra weight than it is to walk with it. Nevertheless the prospects for primitive art seem to be bright for an avian intelligence.

The Prospects for Agriculture

Likewise, there is no particular reason why agriculture couldn’t be eventually developed, though tending fields would require the avian intelligence in question to be on the ground most of the time. It seems the sedentism of farming culture would exact an even greater psychological cost to an avian than it would a human, making for either a truly tragic collective psyche or an indefinite resistance to agriculturalism.

Domesticating animals for food, as opposed to plants, seems more promising, as the relative nomadism of pastoral culture wouldn’t be as psychologically burdensome. Indeed, for a purely carnivorous species ranching would be the only option for practicing agriculture, as fields of crops would have no use for them except as a means of feeding their herds. It has been suggested elsewhere that carnivorous species may embrace agriculture as a means to feed their herds, but considering that ranchers in real life generally had their herds graze off the land (as opposed to feeding them crops) until very recently it seems to me an unlikely development, at least until the local equivalent of the industrial revolution and “intensive agriculture”.

The animals in question might be large land creatures, like the animals humans domesticated, or they might be other flying creatures. Flying creatures seem the most likely, since humans (land creatures) tended to domesticate fellow land animals, as opposed to water or airborne animals. Flying creatures would have the advantage of letting the avian intelligence keep to the skies as opposed to the ground, which one supposes would be healthier and more productive for them. It’s worth noting that domestication of animals does not imply agriculturalism; the dog was domesticated by hunter-gatherers and was used to aid in hunting. A similar relationship between an avian intelligence and a sub-sapient avian animal could easily develop.

There is no real obstacle to an avian intelligence going down the same development pathway humans did, from agriculture to metallurgy, industrialism, and eventual development of a spacefaring civilization. This, however, all depends on there being land available to exploit and build permanent structures upon. What if an avian intelligence developed on an ocean planet that had no land?

Life without Land’s Bounties

Much digital ink has been spilled over the prospects for aquatic intelligence, and their chances for developing metallurgy based on mining out the sea floor, but very little consideration is given to sapient flying creatures on such worlds. After all, the evolution from gliding to powered flight could just as easily occur in flying fish as any other gliding creature, and this is especially likely to occur on a world with a thick oxygen atmosphere, which I outlined in a previous post.

These avians wouldn’t have access to any mining sites on the ocean floor unless they were in shallow water, and even then they would need diving equipment likely beyond the abilities of a Stone Age culture. An aquatic creature could be domesticated to mine the ocean floor for them, but this seems somewhat unlikely (though hardly impossible) considering aquatic domestication was beyond ancient humans’ abilities even when it would have been useful. Even wood, a crucial material in all human cultures, would be unavailable, drastically altering the technology of their societies. So with metal and wood out, what is left?

Products from plants and especially animals would be all there was, with animal skin and leather being particularly prominent, and the strongest material being bone. For a species that was carnivorous anyway, this wouldn’t be a drastic change at a Paleolithic level of technology, though Paleo-ossic would be a better term in their case (Old Bone Age as opposed to Old Stone Age). The material culture would most closely resemble the Inuit of Earth’s Arctic, who didn’t have any trees available to harvest wood from, and didn’t make much use of refined metal.

Technology for a Bone Age

Leather, skin, and bone can be surprisingly strong, and we might be impressed to see what level of technology might be attainable without metal or wood. Even the use of fire, for applications such as smithing and cooking, is still possible in such a culture, since, as the Inuit knew, fat and animal oil burn well enough. Bone can be made into ceramic material which may be used for any number of purposes. The frontiers of such an approach are speculative, but even if industrialism or metalsmithing is beyond such a culture, scientific inquiry should be mostly unaffected. Astronomy in particular wouldn’t suffer any losses, as an avian intelligence should be able to see the stars and track the other planets in their solar system very well.

For science much depends on whether bone can be made into transparent glass; I cannot readily find any answer to this question on the Internet, but considering bone china (used for making dishes) is translucent it should be possible. Assuming that it is, then the development of telescopes and microscopes is only a matter of time, enabling our avian intelligence to peer deeply into the heavens above and discover the invisible world of single-celled organisms below. If this happens, then we might see a species that is scientifically advanced and possesses a rich culture but has relatively low technology overall, a fascinating setup for any speculative fiction setting.

Even with such cultural riches, writing might come relatively late; since there would be nowhere to permanently store any sort of text, there would be less point in writing down information as opposed to orally transmitting it. That could change, however; if the world had a thicker oxygen atmosphere lighter-than-air organisms could develop, which might easily be employed to float libraries in locations that would only drift with the winds and thus would be relatively accessible. These gasbag organisms would also be very convenient to float buildings made out of bone and leather. In addition they may serve as an excellent fuel source, as flammable hydrogen, methane, or hot air, far more easily generated biologically than a noble gas, would likely be the way they float.

Another way that is less exotic would be to employ another avian creature as a beast of burden to carry libraries, texts, artworks, buildings, equipment, and the like, perhaps in a relationship similar to the one between dog and man. One could even envision teams of such creatures carrying large structures on their backs, in an airborne version of a dog sled team.

Jumping straight from the Bone Age to the Nuclear Age

If a culture did arise that had these characteristics, their advanced science would pave the way to a technological breakthrough; all materials in the crust of a planet are present in its oceans in the form of dissolved particles. With sufficient scientific investigation of the water’s composition these elements will be filtered out in the analysis, uncovering the full scope of the periodic table of chemical elements. Once sufficient concentrations of the more common metals are isolated and tested experimentally, they will realize the utility of these materials. As filtering apparatus technology advances, extraction of metals from the ocean will become easier. This could stimulate an industrial revolution, but since the primary energy source will be animal oils, progress will likely be slow.

This would continue until an understanding of radioactivity is developed from investigating uranium. Once they realize uranium can be refined and used as a power source, they would start experimenting with building nuclear reactors. This would enable them to access far greater amounts of energy, which when combined with all their scientific knowledge and primitive industry would kick-start their industrial revolution. Nuclear energy would be to them what fossil fuels were to us, and considering the vastly greater energy potential of nuclear power, progress from that point forward might be very rapid compared to human history.

Obviously a rather advanced division of labor would be required for these developments to occur, which in humans was associated with agriculture, namely ranching and (especially) farming. With the possible exception of ranching, this won’t be available to such a culture, which might lead you to think these sort of cultures would be doomed to a low level of development if they stuck with hunting. There is reason, however, to think that view might be incorrect.

Transportation substitutes for Population

Division of labor, fundamentally, requires a certain population size. A population of a few dozen, as in the average Paleolithic band, won’t be able to specialize much, but just before the agricultural revolution the world population was on the order of 1-10 million, comparable to the population of England at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Why, then, was there not an industrial revolution in 10 000 BC? The simple reason is that coordination across the world was impossible. A man can sustainably walk perhaps 20 miles in a day, which means that it would take 622 days, almost two years, to reach the other end of the Earth. A round trip would take three and a half years, obviously far too long to coordinate work. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that humans can only walk on land and must bypass the sea, making some trips, such as Africa to South America, take even longer. The breakthrough of agriculturalism is that by increasing population density by a factor of a hundred specialization was enabled.

An avian intelligence wouldn’t have these obstacles; if men in 10 000 BC could fly as effectively as the fastest birds can today, perhaps 500 miles in a day, they could have reached the other end of the Earth in 25 days. While this still implies a 50 day round trip it also implies that the populations that could be accessed within a day’s or a week’s round trip might range in the hundreds of thousands to the millions, far greater than in any pre-agriculture human context. The specialization possible with that size of a population integrating into a single economy is closer to the agricultural era than the hunter-gatherer era, without needing to adopt agriculture. Advances in transportation technology these levels of specialization will enable will close the gap still further, enabling truly global economic integration.

Thus it may be plausible for an avian intelligence, especially one on an ocean planet (particularly one with a thick oxygen atmosphere), to develop modern or even more advanced levels of technology while skipping agriculture and retaining hunting as its subsistence strategy. Industrialized or even spacefaring hunters who retain band society and other primordial norms may be a fascinating scenario to explore. Even more interesting might be the pre-industrial stage where you have high culture but low technology, perhaps with a story premise surrounding them being contacted by another species.

Conclusion

Such a species as the “industrialized avian hunters with nukes in space” we have explored here may actually be well-suited to interstellar domination, since their nomadic explorer nature will be undiluted by millennia of sedentism, their intelligence and bodily health will have been undiminished for the same reason, and their history of paradisaical hunting at will followed by a nuclear-driven technological revolution will give them reason for boundless optimism. In addition to all this, their rich cultural and artistic heritage will be another advantage, perhaps even helping them to gain influence with alien species.

Their only real disadvantage would be that their lifestyle demands a lot of space for a given population, which will greatly limit the off-world population in the early stage of space colonization and will later necessitate very large space habitats. This will be relatively unwieldy compared to species that can fit in tighter spaces. In addition, they may be at a disadvantage if war breaks out with another species, since hunting cultures aren’t very used to fighting wars (there is no unambiguous archaeological evidence of war, as distinguished from interpersonal violence, in the entire Paleolithic). They shouldn’t have too much trouble adapting, but it would nevertheless be a disadvantage.

We see in this post that the worldbuilding possibilities for avian intelligence in a speculative fiction, science fiction, or fantasy context go well beyond dragons or simple bird people, and can quickly become very interesting and exotic. As far as I am aware such a premise as we have explored here, as opposed to a simple extrapolation of real birds or an otherwise human-like or dragon-like flying sapient, is hardly ever used in science fiction, fantasy, or alternate history. It would make a creative and nearly unique premise, and I can recommend its employment by artists, writers, and worldbuilders without reservation.

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