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Brightly colored birds resting on a tree
Brightly colored birds resting on a tree

Book Excerpt from The Creative Lives of Animals

In the book's introduction, author Carol Gigliotti makes the case that intricate behavioral patterns can be just as important to conserve as species’ genomes.

A black and white photo of author Carol Gigliotti
Carol Gigliotti

Carol Gigliotti is professor emerita of Dynamic Media at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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ABOVE: © ISTOCK.COM, drakuliren

Animals create.

Some use their intelligence, self-awareness, and flexibility, three essentials for creativity, to build homes. Beavers engineer their elaborate dams and canals by controlling and creating water flow to transport food and building materials. 

Understanding exactly what needs their unique habitats demand, they devise appropriate and creative strategies to meet them. Each caddisfly larva, using the same creative qualities as the beaver, constructs a unique protective case around themselves using sticky silk threads expelled from their head. Individuals carefully choose just the right material, such as plants, sand grains, wood fragments, pebbles, and small shells. With these, they construct the exquisitely intricate cases in which they live for up to two years until shedding them as adults.

Whether they are building, communicating their feelings of anger, empathy, or affection, showing their personalities, improvising a new song, charming and seducing a mate, inventing a new game to play, or adding to their collective cultures, their creative processes enhance their lives and often contribute to the diversity of this planet.

Book cover of <em>The Creative Lives of Animals</em> by Carol Gigliotti showcasing ca colorful group of birds
NYU Press, November 2022


If I had said these things even five years ago, the amount of argument I would have received would have stopped this discussion in its tracks. Audiences who read books on nature, the environment, animals, and science and are now familiar with new thinking on animal intelligence, emotion, and self-awareness will find additional reasons to see animals as valuable and powerful beings. Those readers who still find this thinking surprising will find explanations of how the creative behavior of animals rests on these and other qualities once considered to belong only in our species.

Most of us view animals through a very narrow lens, one that sees only bits and pieces of beings who seem mostly peripheral to our lives. In actuality, animals are complete individuals with the potential for creative behavior in many aspects of their lives. Hearing the gorgeous and uniquely pure whistles of a sparrow refreshes our spirits. Recognizing those whistles as part of the creative languages of birds cracks open a wider view of animals’ place in the world. What we might not know is that many songbirds are not born knowing how to sing. For these birds, their songs are not innate; they learn their songs. Not only that, but where the songs are learned, when they are learned, and from whom they are learned are unique to each species. The ability to learn in varied ways points to traits we evoke when discussing the foundations of cognition, consciousness, and creativity in humans and is just as useful in discussing those foundations in animals.

Male bowerbirds of New Guinea and Australia practice for many years carefully constructing lavishly decorated bowers of several types, all for love. To further charm and seduce their prospective mates, they also dance and sing. Some bowerbirds indirectly cultivate a berry plant they use not as food but as decoration in their bowers. Others collect specific colors of glass shards, plastic toys, straws, flowers, and, for one bower, a glass eyeball.

Like bowerbirds, humans have often designed, engineered, and built beautiful domiciles for love. Our creative urges are mixed with emotions of all kinds: curiosity, compassion, revenge, sorrow, and empathy, among many others. Birds, long accused of being stupid, possess perceptive and cognitive abilities that serve as the basis for their intricate social behaviors. Birds, scientists have now learned, have complex brains as inventive as any mammalian brain. Chickens—although I have noticed people often forget that they are birds—are social diplomats within stable groups, at least in healthy and open environments. Able to differentiate at least 100 individual chickens by recognizing the idiosyncrasies of their facial features, they are avid communicators and use at least 30 different vocalizations that researchers have interpreted via careful documentation. The human creativity research community considers social diplomacy a valuable creative trait, and those who spend time with chickens have long known how socially adept they are. While the idea that animals have the capacity for various forms of creativity is not new, only recently have scientists considered it a serious source of investigation. As with us, animals’ creative choices affect their social, cultural, and environmental worlds. Their lives as emotional beings also affect their creativity. In a recent study conducted at the University of Bristol, researchers found that domestic hens exhibit a clear physiological and behavioral response to their chicks’ distress. The researcher explained, “We found that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of ‘empathy’; the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.” Empathy helps prepare for a creative solution. Understanding another’s distress is essential in alleviating that distress.

Text from The Creative Lives of Animals by Carol Gigliotti. Copyright @2022 by New York University. All rights reserved.

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