Internet Bird Videos: Not So Cute

In celebration of National Bird Day 2016, Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate for Born Free USA, ornithological artist and lifelong bird enthusiast, is writing a special five-part blog series. Below is the first installment.

Published 12/14/15

Yes, sure… I love birds. And yes, I’ve studied, observed, and obsessed over them since early childhood. I’ve taken care of them (my late mother was a pioneer in the rescue and rehabilitation of wild birds, so for several decades, I lived in a house full of birds of many species who needed our help), drawn and painted them as an artist, and bonded strongly with a few individual birds along the way. I belong to various ornithological organizations, have written books and articles on birds—both popular and scientific—and carefully studied wild birds throughout the world.

Thus, I guess it’s normal to expect folks to send me links to various “cute” bird videos online. Goodness knows there are enough of them! But, here’s the thing: I don’t like those videos.

They not only often show stressed birds displaying bizarre behavior, but they also show some of our worst attitudes toward animals. The birds are all too commonly treated as living toys: little animated things who make us laugh with their “antics” as we deprive them of all that led to their existence in the first place. They are shown as small, feathered clowns—ill-suited for the world of tile and hardwood floors, Formica countertops, chairs, couches, kitchens, and cages in which they perform for our fickle amusement—doing “silly” things that, with luck, will go “viral” on YouTube.

An emotionally healthy, content bird does not hold his/her wings partly out and tightly compress his/her feathers to the body, as do so many in these videos. The behavior of the birds in these videos—often screaming or rolling over with some “toy” or bobbing up and down and showing fragments of sexual or threat displays—may look “cute” or “funny,” but these are actually displays of abnormal, psychotic behavior (no less than a human obsessively rocking back and forth, or picking at an open wound, or staring endlessly into space, or flying into a rage over some real or imagined slight). The cockatoo endlessly repeating a four-letter swear word is not really swearing, as his/her human owner pretends. The other cockatoo making a mess of things, in spite of pleas not to, is not really understanding how his/her actions are interpreted or what is being asked of him/her.

Many of the birds in these videos are literally mutilated through wing clipping or pinioning to render them flightless (the better to force them into a farce of domestication and a range of unnatural activities that may look cute if, and only if, we assign them human motivations). They are excluded from companionship with other birds of their own kind (as they have evolved through millions of years to experience) or interactions with the infinitely rich environments of their ancestral habitat. They are not truly what their genetic inheritance requires them to be.

I am not amused.

Leave a comment