“Animals differ from one another in their modes of subsistence, in their actions, in their habits, and in their parts.”
Aristotle, The History of Animals
Sometimes I am asked what I recommend to prepare young people for doing philosophy. There are of course different ways to dispose young minds for pursuing wisdom.
Bird-watching is one of them.
I often tell my students that using the human mind is an exercise in seeing sameness and difference. To grasp the essence of something is to grasp how at the same time it is similar to and also different from other things.
The bird-watcher, captivated by the beauty of these amazing creatures, learns to be an attentive observer of natural kinds and the differences between them. In living creatures, especially animals, certain basic truths are particularly evident: such as the importance of natural kinds, and the order and purposiveness of the natural world.
Bird-watchers learn to notice sameness and difference. Motivated by interest, indeed love of birds, they learn to discriminate and to wonder at what they see.
A few weeks ago my 5 year old son and I were watching birds coming to our simple front-porch feeder. In addition to our regular Tufted Titmouses (Titmice?) and Downy Woodpeckers there was also a Nuthatch. I remember well when I was young watching birds with my father how we noticed that the nuthatch perches and moves on a tree “upside down.” Here my son and I were observing the same thing. Raphael asked me, “Why do Nuthatches do that?” Good question, to which I do not know the answer. But for some reason they do.
As we watched I had an especially exciting moment as another bird came in that looked much like the nuthatch, but was clearly different. Upon my pointing it out Raphael did not see the difference I had immediately noticed. We continued to observe together. Closer examination revealed a unique white stripe over the eye, accented by a black patch passing through the eye.
Having some confidence we had discerned a difference we went to our bird book. And sure enough: there is a white-breasted nuthatch, the only nuthatch up to this point I had ever seen, and a red-breasted nuthatch with those different head markings. It was so exciting; we could add a new bird to our list!
In my opinion there is no real reason for youth today to read the philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle before the age of sixteen, and perhaps not before college. But a habit of observing the natural world with attention and interest–and thus also humility–can be cultivated from the earliest years. And indeed it is never too late for any of us to be nourished–in ways that might surprise us–by a deeper familiarity and appreciation of our fellow creatures.
Note: In the next couple of weeks I intend to share some basics about visual and audio identification of a few common birds around us. My hope is to encourage and enable more of us to have the joy of daily recognition of birds.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.
Image: above, the Red-breasted Nuthatch. Below, the white-breasted nuthatch.