Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Expressionless Faces of Birds

A few people commented on yesterday's post via G+ to the effect that birds make good bases for monsters. It was also suggested I am destined to make a game in which everything is birds. I think this means I must post about bird-related monsters a lot. 

I like birds. I do a lot of hiking and I like to get out and about, and the idea of ornithology sort of appeals to the 8 year old inside me, whose chief career aspiration was to be a zoologist (I had a romantic image of myself being David Attenborough, essentially - travelling around the world studying exotic wildlife and making TV programmes about it; I'm still not convinced that this is beyond the realms of possibility).

What is most interesting about birds (this is also true of non-mammals in general, really, but birds are intelligent with it) is that their facial expressions don't change. They don't smile, they don't have whiskers or ears that they can move about, they don't move facial muscles. They have a fixed expression which is typically somehow both curious and disdainful. 


This is also true of their behaviour. Birds are always on the alert, always moving, always looking for something, always ready to pounce. If you watch them closely there is something almost robotic about their actions - as if they are not really alive but are rather supremely detailed and exquisitely crafted clockwork automatons.

This is why avian-based monsters are chilling: their lack of expression gives them a kind of blank, totally cold, utterly remorseless gaze which, if fixed on you as prey, would strike you with the deepest sense of your own worthlessness. This is an animal that will kill you and eat you, and you will mean nothing to it. There is no animosity there, but nor is there any impression of feeling; while a tiger would kill you just as dead, at least it would convey to you a sense of aggression and ferocity in doing so. With a bird there would simply be that still, stony look - exactly the same look that it has when it is preening its feathers, taking a dust bath, or having a shit. You are simply nothing: a thing to be eaten and then instantly forgotten. 

16 comments:

  1. I've always been struck by the sheer otherness of birds - they're unlike anything else, almost unreal to me, with some exceptions, like crows, which for some reason seem way more grounded and real. I think it's the utter stillness they can convey, despite twitching and moving so rapidly when they do spring into action.

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    1. Crows ought to seem relatable - they're highly social creatures and very, very smart as non-human animals go. Stupidity has an intimidation factor all of its own, and I don't mean in the goofy way of giants and ogres and other human-based monsters. There is something peculiarly horrifying about watching a mouse get consumed by a "lower order" of lifeform like a tarantula, even though I would feel little emotion seeing the same mouse be killed by a cat.

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  2. What's surprising though, is how much they actually do feel and emote, just in ways that are extremely alien to us.

    Anybody who has birds as pets would tell you how attached those birds can become to people or other pets and how closely you have to watch them to have any idea of what they are thinking or trying to communicate. Birds also are one of the creatures that most often seem to just emotion themselves to death. I've seen birds drop dead from fear and pine themselves to death in under 48 hours just because their mate seemingly disappeared (actually went to the vet for the weekend.)

    They seem to be startlingly emotional and unnervingly alien in their perspective.

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    1. Yes - I once saw a documentary about how geese mourn for lost mates. Not all birds, though. In my garden there is a dunnock's nest, and they seem to have more of a bonobo-esque free-love approach. Easy come easy go, so to speak.

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  3. Reminds me of Ted Hughes' poem "Thrushes".

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    1. Thanks for that. What a great poem.

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  4. Birds do change facial expressions. They will ruffle feathers on various parts of their head-- especially birds with crests like cockatiels-- or cheeks or throat to indicate expressions. One just needs to learn what to look for. And how to interpret it. Parrots will oscillate their pupils-- it is called eye pinning-- and this to is a form of facial expression. Just not mammalian expression.

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    1. That's interesting. There's obviously a lot more to it than that, too - stuff that goes on that we can't really even perceive.

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    2. The movements of the head and neck also tell a lot - cocking the head in a certain way signals curiosity, extending the neck worry or anxiety, etc. Chickens and corvids, at least, have ranges of emotion that seem very close to human.

      Oh, and corvids hiss when they're angry.

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  5. If you really wanna see the unnervingness of avians turned up to Gigeresque levels, google penguin tongues sometime.

    Grisly...

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  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. Your responses, more and more, are devolving into self-parody.

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    2. I've explained to Kent before that I'll delete any comments he makes that I perceive as trying to get a rise out of me.

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  7. The important thing to remember is that the birds are the representation of living dinosaurs, with an underlying feral belligerence...

    Even our backyard chickens harken back to the little raptors of their genetic memory, flaring and charging an errant crow (another whole topic), letting out a scream as we attempt to steal their eggs, and opportunists they are, i get dark amusement watching them fight and squabble over a discarded roast chicken carcass.

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    1. Good point. I like that observation.

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