Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Sentry Birds

I have an overly romanticized view of myself.

This view often allows me to justify the fact that I don’t have children. I know, I know, I shouldn’t have to justify it but sometimes (for about 10 minutes) when I feel sad that I don’t have tiny minds to mold in my home or I get that nagging feeling that I have somehow failed the requirements of evolution (thanks so much societal pressures) I find happiness in the thought that I consider myself to be a sentry bird and that I am helping evolution along in my own way.

What is a sentry bird you ask?

Sentry birds are the birds in the flock that fly out ahead and sing a watchman’s song to alert the other birds whether or not there are predators or other danger or whether there is adequate food for foraging.

Sort of a romanticized version of what a vocal skeptic, a social activist or an artist with a message would do. No?

From a 2008 study on Pied Babblers via Science Daily.

Researchers from the University of Bristol, led by BBSRC David Phillips Fellow Dr Andy Radford, have demonstrated that by giving the distinctive ‘watchman’s song’, individuals scanning for danger as sentinels ensure that their group-mates can focus on foraging, and so capture more food. Dr Radford said: “These exciting results point to a great example of true cooperation. The unselfish behaviour of the sentry is probably rewarded down the line by the improved survival of group mates, which leads to a larger group size. This increases the sentinel’s chances of survival when the group is under attack from predators or having to repel rivals from their territory. It’s a win-win scenario!”

By “singing a watchman’s tune” or in other words, by speaking out about things that are wrong like sexism, or things that are dangerous like certain alt-med products, or things that are a waste of money like psychics and homeopathy we are (hopefully) helping to increase the survivability of our group.

Yes, yes I know, people and birds are very different but this chick likes to think of herself as a soldier for a greater good.

What do you say? Are we making the world a better place by continually speaking out? Is it easier to forage when I sing Slayer songs or Frank Sinatra? *Do you ever compare yourself to birds or mammals and if so what do you like to think of yourself as?

*Yeah, see skeptics can also have that rather enjoyable “spirit animal” conversation that Sara and Mike down at Whole Foods likes to have. We are just smart enough to know that it is just a comparison and that the vision of three white birds doesn’t mean that we can fly or that great Aunt Betty says hello.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I’m a chipmunk. The Rescue Ranger variety.

    The sentry bird is cool, though. Yay new knowledge!

  2. Honestly never really thought of myself in terms of being an animal. If I were to pick something that was representative of me, it would probably be a Weimaraner. Smart, high strung, short attention span and neurotic.

    Yep. Weimaraner.

  3. “Are we making the world a better place by continually speaking out?”

    Maybe, but I believe that pointing out when people are being stupid is its own reward.

    1. I love it. There used to be a band called Black Velvet Flag that would sing hard core punk songs in a lounge style. Absolutely, brilliant.

      1. There is also Richard Cheese. Lounge covers of rap, rock and whatever else twists his nipples.

  4. I think we are helping by speaking out. At the very least, we’re doing the responsible thing and sharing our own wisdom with the herd.

    If by foraging you mean “makin’ the bacon”, then I listen all over the map from King Diamond to Salsa, depending on my mood. Today I pulled Hank III out after a good three weeks on constant rotation and replaced it with Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring.

    Do I ever compare myself to an animal? Yeah, but not in kindly or kid-friendly terms… ;)

  5. I thought you were talking about Adam Carolla’s Attack Crows. Speaking out, swooping in and pecking someone’s eyes out, all for the greater good. And maybe you don’t convince the person you’re talking to/pecking at… but maybe someone else who is on the fence is paying attention, and you can tip them your way. That should be worth doing.

    BTW, that’s a much better excuse for not having kids than the one I came up with: I’d rather have expensive toys than children, and if I had children they’d have to eat gruel and forage for dead animals so I could continue to buy expensive toys. Better for me and the kids if they are never born, right?

  6. I simply don’t like children. I respect others’ rights to profligate, but I have no real interest in continuing my genetic line. Yours sounds like a noble reason though.

    1. I feel much the same way. No disrespect to those who want children, but I really don’t like the little buggers.

      And just because my DNA wants to replicate itself doesn’t mean I have to want that. There’s no moral imperative to follow your biological imperative.

  7. Thank you for stroking my non-breeding female ego, Amy. Now I can add “soldier for the greater good” and “sentry bird” to my list of awesome titles. Also I believe I’m past due for adding another Surlyramic to my collection. :)

  8. Also, on the sentry bird image, the bird is helping to propagate its own genes by promoting the welfare of its close kin (since it’s likely to be closely related to the rest of the flock). And as a breeding female, I’d like to thank all you sentry birds for helping me raise skeptical daughters, by making the world a saner and more rational place. Our “flock” may be related through memes rather than genes, but it’s the same idea. (And they each have their own Surlyramic that they can now wear proudly!)

  9. My patronus would have to be a street pigeon. A gritty survivor with a great appreciation for friends and food.

    As for breeding… None for me, the world is in no danger of underpopulation. My man has a vasectomy.

  10. A few months ago I hit a little biological point of no return past which I can no longer have kids. So, for me, it has recently become a medical fact I can’t really hide from: I will now never be a biological parent. Full stop.

    I realized pretty early in life that I was queer, and having kids was pretty unlikely. So I never really internalized that whole thing. And it wasn’t what I really envisioned for my life… I saw myself travelling, writing, having adventures and loves and meeting great people and stuff, but I never saw myself as a mother or the demestic wifey type. I just figured it was someone else’s “destiny”, I guess.

    And so when I came to the point where I had to decide whether or not I was going to bank any genetic material so I could someday pass my DNA on, I guess it just didn’t seem worth it. I’d already accepted that wasn’t really me. And now the choice is made, it’s over. It’s all just rhetorical now.

    I mean, as a species, we’re beyond evolution now anyway, aren’t we? Medicine and all that. Someone like me shouldn’t really exist, from an evolutionary standpoint. In nature, there’s NO WAY I ever would have gotten around to passing on my genes, if I even survived past infancy. I am 100% unnatural. And I love that stuff…I love that as human beings we can do more than just follow along to the nasty designs of nature. We can construct ourselves and aspire to things more abstract than eat/sleep/mate. We can make choices. We can be unnatural.

    I remember in The Symposium, when it gets to Socrates turn, he decides to defer his own opinion on love to what he was told by the oracle at Delphi. According to the Oracle (according to Socrates), the main driving force behind love was immortality. In heterosexual love (which throughout the whole book gets described as being kind of banal and “beneath” male/male love… a bias which I don’t personally share, but I find fun) that immortality is achieved through children. But she says that the love between men leads to the achievement of immortality through great actions. That that kind of love inspires each other to do great things.

    Leaving aside the love stuff, and the weird privileging of male homosexuality, I think there’s an interesting little something there worth thinking about a bit… that there are other ways of spreading ourselves forward, of contributing to the greater whole of humanity, of letting ourselves resonate beyond our deaths besides the straightforward route of bearing children.

    Is your DNA really any more the essence of “you” than your actions, contributions, art, whatever? DNA is just a particular sequence of particular acids. Your experiences shape you at least as much as your genes. So why all the fuss on carrying that DNA forward another generation? What about sharing those experiences?

    What about adoption? Couldn’t we say an adoptive parent gives as much of herself to her child as a biological one?

    And on that note, maybe I still have a choice in this after all?

      1. Hell yes! Can we stay up past my bedtime eating junk food and watching movies until our eyes fall out?

        Actually, that makes me think of a fun example. My mom was adopted. Her mom probably passed on that little warning about eyes falling out, which she then passed on to me. So although my grandma never produced any biological children, and is now deceased (RIP), there’s a little piece of her living on in me that came out just now!

  11. Who’s to say that someone like natalie1984 isn’t contributing (via knowledge and critical thinking) just as much to humanity as someone that raises their own biological children?

    After all, in a sense that’s what grandparents do. They assist in raising their grandchildren and training them how to cope with life via tranferring hard won wisdom and knowledge.

  12. since the raison d’etre of evolution is to yield a mixed bag of results, regardless of which result we are, i’d say we are all natural.
    i don’t think there is anything on this planet which is “unnatural”, in the proper sense of the word. some of us may go against the social expectation of breeding and greeding, but the best people usually do.

    1. Yeah, I agree. That whole evolution as pinnacle thing is bullpooky. It’s actually a healthy phenomenon to NOT try & subscribe to anything related to founders effect. Variety is a GOOD thing.

      and evolution certainly hasn’t stopped. It keeps going & going. Our little time scale & medical doohickeys won’t stop that.

  13. I RSS skepcheck a while back because I like reading you guys. This is the first time I have felt a need to post.
    I just recently visted with 2 of my newest great-grandchildren. I felt exactly what was stated above. I was holding my little piece of imortality.
    I am so glad I had children.
    I am a very much “each to his own” and don’t believe in my way being the right way except for me.
    One of my favorite sayings is
    “The truth is what you believe it to be.”
    I believe that is true for everyone.

    1. I’m sorry but I just feel the need to respond here since this is a skeptical blog. The truth is not what you believe it to be. You don’t get to believe things into facts. For example, you can’t just suddenly believe that gravity doesn’t exist to suit your desires. I also think you may have missed the point of my post which was that you don’t need to breed in order to be a influential part of the evolutionary process.

      I’m glad you love your family and that you are happy and that it makes you feel like you are part of a long line of history or in your words, immortality. I am not trying to to tell you how to feel or who to love but you do not get to make up rules of nature just because you believe them to be true. Facts will still be facts regardless of faith.

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