And what of the semipalmated sandpiper, a few of which I last saw at low tide on Labor Day? Is it appropriate to use words such as gossip and love, to think of their self-awareness? I put the question to the British ornithologist Tim Birkhead, whose latest book is Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2012). He told me he couldn’t recall any behavioural tests of sandpipers, nor rigorous comparisons to crows or parrots, but still, he said: ‘You can guess that they have more sophisticated cognitive abilities than most people would give them credit for.’ Given everything we know about animal consciousness, and the primal nature of both our own emotions and our social bonds, it certainly seems reasonable to err on the side of personalising the birds.
…I can’t truly know what goes on their heads. Yet at some point this becomes irrelevant: we can’t ever really know what goes on in another person’s mind, but we manage all the same. I’m happy to know simply that the birds I’ve seen have their own private worlds, their own sense of light and companionship. They go to sleep expecting to wake again. Perhaps they have names for each other. I just don’t know what they are.