Pale-winged Trumpeter v Mirror (28 Sep 2017)

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Mirror-Image Stimulation Study, Pale-winged Trumpeter Bird, River Pariamanu, Peru

Photography and Videography by Mark Fernley Untamed Photography Ltd

Analysis and interpretation by Richard Huzij MSc Psychology


Following on from the jaguar study earlier this month, this analysis will focus on a new subject documented by Untamed Photography’s mirror study – The Pale-Winged Trumpeter bird (Psophia leucoptera). This subject presented on a dry evening at approximately 4:32am in late September 2017. The subject interacted with the mirror for approximately 2 minutes as presented by film view before moving on. There was nothing at the site to indicate any great length of stay or wider activity around the mirror site. The Subject’s sex is likely to be male, as identified primarily by its colourings, size and specifically its behaviour.


Like with my jaguar behaviour analysis, I have been asked to, if possible, make an interpretation of the psychological behaviour of this new Subject Untamed Photography have documented within their Mirror-stimulation study. The speculation throughout this work is if the animals who interact with the mirror display any indication of recognition. As discussed in my previous behavioural analysis on the jaguar, the psychological capacity required to ‘recognise self’ is rare (Lewis, 2012, Anderson, 1984), with only a handful of creatures (humans included) having been documented to have done so (Langley, 2015, Turner, 2013) – see–jaguar analyses for more details.

The psychology of birds, and specifically the extent of avian intelligence, is a heated debate within its self, far too varied to be included in any great detail in this analysis (for reviews see Armstrong, 1947; Collias and Collias, 2014; Elphick and Dunning, 2001; Rowe and Skelhorn, 2004; Bolhuis, 1991). The extent to their intelligence can be somewhat easy to dismiss, with such phrases like ‘bird-brain’ being used to describe someone with low intelligence/maturity. However, this can be argued to not give birds their due cognitive credit. Many avian species arguably have relatively large brains in relation to their body size (Henriksen et al 2016; Byrne and Bates, 2007). Even the smaller species display social ‘flocking’ behaviours, living in groups of varying sizes depending on the species. There is also the notable difference in psychology and behaviour between ‘pray’ and ‘predator’ birds, again, the extents and details of this are species dependent, varied and numerous.

Even numerical understanding has been documented in birds. For example, Parrots (Pepperberg, 2006) and even Crows/Ravens (Smith, 2016) have been documented to possess numerical understanding. However, displaying intelligence and displaying self-recognition are very different feats. Despite the intelligence of birds such as parrots and crows, the only bird (and only non-mammal to date ever) to have been shown to display self-recognition is the European Magpie. Prior et al’s (2008) study using the mirror test, reviled that these remarkable birds do indeed have the cognitive ability to recognise themselves in a mirror and thus are arguably conscious of self to a certain extent.

However, in the case of our Subject, the Trumpeter’s interaction with the mirror can be argued strongly to not be indicative of any self-recognition. But nevertheless, its behaviour is still psychologically interesting. Like with the jaguar, the Subject doesn’t recognise its self, however it can be argued that it does recognise its species. The aggressive and energetic runs, jumps and leaps it makes towards and at its reflection corresponds to already documented aggressive behaviour in Trumpeter birds (Sherman and Eason, 1998; Seddon et al, 2002). It has been speculated by the Untamed Photography team the Subject was behaving territorially. Trumpeter birds are indeed highly territorial and Untamed Photography’s work within the rainforest has already observed and documented these birds in their natural habitat

Trumpeter birds have a definite social structure, with a dominant female having sexual selection of the more dominant male/males within their ‘flock’. This flock will defend its territory fiercely, running to meet intruding Trumpeters (Thiollay and Jullien, 1998). The intruders are ether chased off or court and fought. The fight that occurs involves lots of pecking, flapping and rapid wing movements, like those that our Subject displays against its reflection. Interestingly, our Subject’s behaviour here can also be argued to elude to its gender, as male Trumpeter birds are often the ones who engage in these territorial battles, with the females standing back and calling loudly during the bout (Thiollay and Jullien, 1998, Potter, 2011).

It was also speculated by the team that the Subject may have been seeking to display some form of dominance against its reflection. However, it can be said that our Subject was not engaging in any such dominance display behaviour. Research (Potter, 2011) on Trumpeter birds highlights a very specific pattern of dominance display performed by them within their flocks. Most often occurring after dawn, Trumpeters will reassess/reassert their social structure within the flock by performing highly ritualized ‘wing spreading’. As part of this, the dominant birds are faced by lower ranked individuals who then proceed to lower their heads and horizontally extend their wings. These lower ranked birds also call out during this display in a high-pitched twitter like that of Trumpeter chicks. Trumpeter dominance is liked to age, with the older individuals being of higher status (Potter, 2011). The submissive display of the less dominant birds reviles areas their plumage that is darker on juveniles, thus displaying to the older dominant bird that they are young and less dominant. The dominant birds respond to this with rapid ‘wing-flicks’, raising their wings upwards and forward before quickly lowing them.

Considering all this in relation to our Subject, the response to its reflection can be argued to highlight not only its lack of self-recognition, but also any wider recognition to its flock. In seeing its own reflection, it does not seek to display submission or dominance like they do to members of its own flock, but instead treats its reflection as an unknown intruder to its territory. Although Trumpeter birds are not considered endangered or specifically rare (Sherman et al, 2011), they do inhabit remote and undisturbed areas of rainforest far away from human settlements that can be difficult to penetrate, and as such, a great amount of research on these remarkable birds does not exist. This highlights the great importance of Untamed Photography’s work within Peru, with the team documenting these animals from right inside their natural habitat. The Mirror-Image Stimulation Study being conducted by Untamed Photography on the Pale-Winged Trumpeter makes a sound conurbation to an area of research that needs further exploration.


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Written by by Richard Huzij MSc Psychology