Last spring I came to know a pair of pigeons. I’d been putting out neighborly sunflower seeds for them and my local Brooklyn house sparrows; typically I left them undisturbed while feeding, but every so often I’d want to water my plants or lie in the sun. This would scatter the flock—all, that is, except for these two.
One, presumably male, was a strapping specimen of pigeonhood, big and crisp-feathered in an amiably martial way. The other, smaller bird presented a stark contrast: head and neck feathers in patchy disarray, eyes watery, exuding a sense of illness that transcends several hundred million years of divergent evolution.
She didn’t have the energy to take wing as I approached. Instead she’d take several desultory steps away. Her mate would fly to the deck railing, where he paced back and forth. He gave every impression of wanting to flee—but not without his mate, at whom he looked back with apparent concern. This caught me by surprise. I spend a fair amount of time watching animals and writing about them—not just about their populations or interactions or physiologies, but about their minds, what they might think or feel—yet I hadn’t much tried to put myself in a pigeon’s feathers, so to speak.
Moreover, I slipped into that easy habit of interpreting behaviors through a narrowly evolutionary lens, assuming their decisions to be coldly calculated to maximize reproductive success. From which perspective the male’s loyalty made little sense: Better for him to fly off and find another, healthier mate with whom to pass on his genes, than to stick around with this sick bird.
Of course, I wouldn’t frame my own life that way. Where I have meaningful feelings, they would have imperatives. Yet as I watched Harold and Maude, as I so unoriginally named them, their drama unfolding beside murals my girlfriend and I had painted as expressions of our own feelings, I began to wonder. Harold behaved in a manner expressive of devotion, tenderness, and affection: the foundations of what in humans we call love. [Continue reading…]