Thursday, 16 June 2016

Microfunctional Flexibility

In order to solicit feeding, rainbow lorikeets will resort to all four microfunctions.

Regular visitors simply announce their presence (personal microfunction) with a clear short high call when they arrive.

Impatient visitors will solicit the provision of food (instrumental microfunction) with an insistent high rising call similar to the calls used by young chicks on their parents.

Immature impatient visitors will express their disapproval (regulatory microfunction) with harsh barking calls they use on each other for bullying purposes.

Mature regular visitors will even try to groom the feeder (interactional microfunction) with louder versions of the cooing/purring sounds they use when grooming each other.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Do Lorikeets See What Humans See?

No — in two senses: one material, one semiotic.

1.  Birds have 4 types of colour receptors, whereas humans only have three.  So their visual systems detect a wider range of the light frequencies, at the very least.

2.  If semiotic systems construe experience as meaning, then lorikeet visual experience is construed through their protolinguistic social semiotic system, whereas human visual experience is construed through language.

One way to think of raw visual experience — before it becomes construed as meaning — is as a partially animated pattern of (nameless) shapes and colours — as a sort of Jackson Pollock painting in which some of the coloured shapes can move around.

Detecting change is key to survival, and for humans, language provides clause transitivity as the key means of construing visible change as meaning.  It enables visual experience — the partially animated Jackson Pollock painting — to be mentally construed as processes, their participants and circumstances.  Humans see things that delimited by their names, doing things that also have names, in places that have names.*

For lorikeets, on the other hand, the partially animated visual patterns are construed as protolinguistic meaning, in terms of the microfunctions — personal, instrumental, regulatory and interactional — in ways that have proved successful for their ancestors — rather than ours.

* This is consistent with Oliver Sacks' account of his patient Virgil who was blind until an operation gave him sight as an adult, after which he had to start making sense of the swirling colours he saw, by reference to language.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Co-ordinating Departure

When a lorikeet pair are feeding, and one of them wants to leave, it utters a very brief "whit" sound.  If the second bird doesn't react, the first bird continues the same call at regular intervals until the second bird reacts and they fly off together.  In terms of Halliday's model of protolanguage, this is an instance of the regulatory microfunction: 'I want + you-&-me'.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Lorikeet Reactions To Dying And Death

A few weeks ago there were two lorikeet deaths within a couple of days.  The first of these is recounted here.

At the end of the day, after all the more dominant groups and individuals had finished feeding for the day, I put out some sugar-water for the small outsider group that is forced to wait until all the bullies have had their fill.

Looking away from the feeding bird, I heard some sort of flurry, and turned to see it fly off in panic, as often happens so late in the day; but I also thought I caught a brief glimpse of something else in the corner of my eye.

The panicked bird returned to feed once more, but another bird, which seemed dazed, was walking on the patio floor.  My best guess is that it collided with part of the building, perhaps to avoid hitting the other bird during the panic.  It made a motion to fly up to safety, but was unable to even flap its wings.

I put some seeds and sugar-water down on the ground for it to eat.  It showed no fear of my looming presence and ate a little.

As it became darker, the feeding bird flew off, crying the usual call they make when departing.  The dazed bird called back to the departed bird, indicating that they were a couple, but it didn't return.  Their anxiety levels raise the darker it gets.

The dazed bird tried to climb up into a pot plant on the edge of the patio in search of a safe night perch.  However, it couldn't, and ended up basing itself by the garbage bins by the back door.  As I checked on it before going inside for the night, I heard it give a gentle sigh that, if a human had uttered it, might be interpreted as signalling both fear and defeat.

In the morning, I was surprised to see it still alive, but in worse condition than the night before.  I put down some food for it, but I don't remember it feeding.  A little later another bird landed by the food and ate.  Then, seeing the dying bird, interpreted its stooped body posture as an invitation to mate, and climbed on top of it and did so.  This demonstrated that the dying bird was female, and that the other bird, being both alone and male, was probably her life-long mate.

A little later, a pair of birds turned up to feed on her food, and the male of the pair also interpreted the dying bird's stooped posture as an invitation to mate, and did so.  The dying bird's mate, who was perched within a metre on a laundry trolley looking down at this, tried, half-heartedly, to drive off the rival higher-ranked male.

The female died soon after this.  Her partner had been keeping watch alone, in a direct line of sight, from the nearby clothes-line.

I gathered up the dead body for burial out beyond the back fence on the edge of wetlands.  As I was digging the grave, I heard a call above me, and looked up to see the dead bird's partner perched on the fronds of a fern tree.  He stayed there for some time, even after his mate had become covered with soil and thus no longer visible.

Witnessing all this was a heart-breaking experience.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Visual Perception, Memory And Primary Consciousness

If a feeding bowl, or its supporting structure, is shifted from its usual position in the yard, the majority of lorikeets will still try to land where the bowl used to be, even to the extent of finding themselves on the ground (and looking bewildered).

This demonstrates that their immediate real-time visual perception occurs against the background of memories of previous experiences.

On Edelman's model, it is 'the dynamic interaction between memory and ongoing perception that gives rise to [primary] consciousness' (2005: 55).

As Edelman points out, memory is a property of the system: the ability to repeat a performance.
As Halliday points out, a performance is an instance of the system potential.

See also here.

Monday, 26 May 2014

The Lorikeet High-Five

When lorikeets compete over access to food, the decisive fighting is between males, though females play a supporting rôle and fight each other.  In alpha couples, the female may behave as aggressively as the male.

When a male wins a decisive victory, he and his partner will sometimes engage in a joint victory celebration, realised by a very rapid serpentine co-ordinated movement of beaks, in conjunction with very agitated, loud, brief "cooing".  This can be seen as rewarding the joint behaviour of the "team".

I have also observed the very same semiosis in pigeons, though with reduced vocalisation.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Inherited Reflexes

Lorikeet chicks have reflexes that become altered by experience.  For example, on seeing any sudden nearby movement while feeding, a chick will automatically take to flight in the opposite direction, while adults will continue feeding regardless.

This raises the question of whether lorikeets inherit reflexes to their own alarm calls — i.e. to their own semiotic system — or whether the flight response is learned through experience, as by imitating others.  It sometimes seems as though such a flight response is not under their immediate control, since some birds will sometimes shut down the flight response moments after the initial reaction, as if regaining control.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Specifying The Food Desired

Rainbow lorikeets feed on both seeds, which they crack with their beaks, and on nectar which they collect on their brush-like tongues (hence trichoglossus), though they prefer nectar.

To indicate the desire to be fed nectar rather than seeds, some birds will maintain eye-contact with the human feeder, open their beaks, and extend their tongues to their full length.

That is to say, this expression of the instrumental microfunction ('I want it') differentiates the desired object by the bodily action used to process it.

Friday, 9 May 2014

An Expression Of Negative Evaluation: Attitude

When a lorikeet is driven off food by a more dominant bird, it will sometimes perch above the feeding lorikeet and defæcate.

Similarly, when barking as a group in a tree at a perceived threat near their food source below, some will sometimes position themselves above the offending human so as to deliver fæces in his direction.

And again, when a lorikeet has waited for other birds to finish eating, only to find the food bowl empty, the hungry bird will sometimes defæcate in the empty food bowl.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Low Rising Pitch

When a senior lorikeet is feeding and a junior lorikeet is watching, looking as if it might challenge for the food, the higher ranked bird will issue a medium-volume fricated sound with low-rising pitch as a warning to the youngster.

(It is very close to the gruff "Wait for it!" command of the Roman centurion in a scene of the film The Life Of Brian where the 'crucifixion party' is about to set off on their march to Calvary.)

Angry-sounding fricated sounds are generally used for vocally "pushing" other birds away, with sound volume proportional to the level of threat/anger/fear.

In English, the low-rising tone is often used with a mild command or negative command, which, as Halliday (2004: 141) says 'has the effect of leaving the decision to the listener'.

The lorikeet call can be compared to the human language situation where an older sibling says to the younger: "Just try it!", entailing "and see what happens!"

Monday, 5 May 2014

Relating Events Without Language

Language enables humans to construe two events as causally related.  Lorikeets are able to remember sequences of events, which is tantamount to establishing temporal if-then relations — temporal conditionals — but it is not clear whether they are capable of construing one event as caused by another.

For example, their behaviour shows that they know that food appears in dishes soon after they see me arriving on the back patio, and once a daily routine is established, on seeing me, they anticipate the arrival of food by flying to the dishes before they are filled.

But when this temporal continuity is broken, they do not necessarily link me to the provision of food.  For example, if I stand near their feeding dishes outside of this ritual, as many as 40 birds in the tree above will co-ordinate a very loud threatening call in an attempt to drive me away, thus treating me either as a ground predator or as a rival for their food source, rather than as the cause of its provision.

Sunday, 4 May 2014


Anthropomorphism is the practice of ascribing human properties to non-humans. Whether or not such an ascription is anthropomorphic, therefore, crucially depends on whether or not the property being ascribed is exclusively human. However, the evolution of species means that all organisms and the properties ascribed to them are evolved variants of one another, having differentiated from a common source. On this basis, behavioural properties ascribable to humans are differentiated variants of properties ascribable to other animal species, and so are hyponyms (“daughters”) of superordinate (“parent”) categories that transcend synchronic species boundaries. The more differentiated the species being compared, the more generalised the superordinate category, and the greater the distance between it and its hyponyms.

To claim that certain traits are exclusively human is to ignore all the graduated evolutionary steps that link species down the generations, and to maintain the anthropocentric perspective of Abrahamic mythology. Complaints of anthropomorphism, sometimes couched in terms of respecting the “dignity” of other species, actually betray the fear of (the “indignity” of) being like other species, and so, betray such fears as not being a separate, unique, special creation, or as being determined robotic mechanisms, and so on; in short, the fear that human life might be as unimportant as some consider the lives of other species to be. The more undervalued the other species, the more intense may be the fear (and the denial of it).

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Lorikeet Schadenfreude?

When young lorikeets "rise above their station" in some way — e.g. eating prior to "their betters" — they typically "get their comeuppance" from more senior lorikeets, who bark angrily at them and often back up the bark with a threat of physical attack — a fairly obvious instance of the regulatory microfunction.

A nearby lorikeet, observing such an encounter, will sometimes vocalise a "hah-hah" call that is almost identical with that used by the character Nelson from the US cartoon show The Simpsons to express schadenfreude.

I have never heard this call used in any other situation.

So this, too, might be interpreted as regulatory in function, perhaps enacted at peer level, since it reinforces the more direct regulatory behaviour of the higher ranked bird.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Visual Perception Without Language

Without language to label visual experience, the visual field is just a configuration of patterns, more or less like a Jackson Pollock painting.  This puts enormous pressure on memory, and makes the detection of difference, such as sudden movements (changes in the pattern), a matter of life and death.

It is not clear how far the semiosis of adult lorikeets — they can live as long as 35 years — develops beyond protolanguage to the point of labelling phenomena.  From observations of their behaviour, I suspect they have intersubjective labels — labels for each other — though it may be just that they recognise each other by indexical features, such as the timbre of their calls.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Background Information

I have been observing the semiosis of (wild) rainbow lorikeets since 2001, chiefly in social situations of feeding and bathing.  Every social activity is an opportunity for renegotiating the pecking order.  Their society has much in common with some baboon societies: hierarchical disputes can be vicious and end in the death of the loser.  The chief murderous technique is to pin the opponent on the ground on their back.  Survivors of such fights usually have feathers missing from the area around their hearts.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Informing Theories

(1) Semiosis: Michael Halliday's Model Of Human Protolanguage: The 4 Microfunctions

exterior phenomenon
I want you-&-me
I want it
I think you-&-me
I think it

(2) Neuroscience: Gerald Edelman's Theory Of Neuronal Group Selection

EDELMAN GM  1989 Neural Darwinism: The Theory Of Neuronal Group Selection Oxford: Oxford University Press
EDELMAN GM  1992 Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On The Matter Of The Mind New York: Basic
EDELMAN GM  2005 Wider Than The Sky: A Revolutionary View Of Consciousness London: Penguin
EDELMAN GM  2006 Second Nature: Brain Science And Human Knowledge New Haven and London: Yale University Press
EDELMAN GM  & TONONI G 2000 Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination London: Penguin