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Do animals lie?

Some birds use deception by pretending that they are sick, or have a broken wing, in order to attract the attention of predators and draw them away from the nest containing their eggs or newly hatched chicks.

ZOE AUTOR 102/Antonio_Cruz TRADUCTOR Roger Marshall 06 DE NOVIEMBRE DE 2022 11:00 h
Red-tailed plover (Charadrius vociferus) practising broken-wing behaviour to deceive predators. / Photo: TexasEagle - Flickr- CC.

The so-called “white lie” refers to a well-intentioned falsehood. In other words, a benevolent purpose is pursued in not telling or reflecting the truth as it is.

The underlying aim is often to make a harsh reality a bit more digestible. On other occasions it is intended to avoid conflict, altercations and unnecessary friction or unpleasant reactions, and thus causing as little hurt as possible. The “white lie”, or “noble lie” is a frequent Machiavellian practice in politics, by means of which political leaders try to maintain social order.

Likewise, “white lies” are used with reference to Santa Claus, the arrival of the Three Kings on January 6th or the presents brought by the tooth fairy, which are aimed at making children happy.

Due allowance mor for the differences, the animal kingdom also offers examples of deception of this kind, for the purpose of self-protection or the protection of defenceless fledgelings, even if this means behaving parasitically or deceitfully with other species. A paradigmatic example of this is that of the “lying” cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), which lays its eggs in the nests of other birds so that the female of the species is tricked into hatching and caring for the cuckoo’s brood, at the expense of its own. This apparent animal cruelty is a feature of our fallen world, in which the influence of the sinister entity, referred to in the Bible as the “father of lies” (John 8:44) is all-pervasive.

The Siberian jay (Perisoneus infaustus), of the crow family, is another lying bird, which lives in pine and spruce forests in northern Scandinavia and Siberia. On occasions it has been seen to deceive other specimens of the same species, in order to steal their food. It is not only a liar, but also a thief! These birds possess a feature referred to as an alarm device, which they use to warn the rest of the group of any imminent danger. When a predator approaches, such as the sparrowhawk or another bird of prey, they squawk stridently to warn the others to take refuge. Obviously such altruistic behaviour benefits the whole group of jays. However, sometimes this apparent altruism is deceitful, and self-serving. In fact, at times they emit warning squawks when there is no danger, and they do so for the sole purpose of scaring away neighbouring groups of jays, and thus calmly stealing the food that they had been hiding away. This amounts to a strategy of deception to take advantage of the hard work done by others and taking their food.

Other birds use deception, by, for example, pretending that they are sick, or have a broken wing, in order to attract the attention of predators and draw them away from the nest containing their eggs or newly hatched chicks. In a recent scientific paper published in the magazine Proceedings of the Royal Society, five researchers studied this latter behaviour and discovered that there are some 52 bird families, comprising 285 different species, from birds like blackbirds, sparrows or warblers to larger birds such as pheasants or ducks. This was surprising and unexpected, from an evolutionist perspective, which presupposes that such behaviour – supposedly originating from random mutations and natural selection – should have occurred independently many times across the whole range of bird families. But in fact it is observed in families that are far apart in the evolutionary phylogeny and have no direct common ancestor. If it is hard to understand how pretending to have a broken wing could have occurred on a single occasion, how much harder it is to understand its occurrence in so many very different families. Saying that it could have come about by “evolutionary convergence”, without explain how, does nothing to solve the problem.

The displays of distractive behaviour in birds are also referred to as “paratrepsis” and are, as we have said, used against daytime predators to draw their attention away from the nest or the chicks. This behaviour is not exclusive to birds, as it has also been observed in fish and mammals. Broadly speaking, many evolutionists assume that such attitudes must have arisen initially as “partial paralysis”, or uncontrolled movements caused by stress when a predator approaches. Other ethologists don’t agree with this explanation and argue that they are due to a conflict of interests in the animal, between its survival instinct and its impulse to protect its progeny. Others, on the other hand, suggest that it is a learned behaviour, and then transmitted “culturally” from one generation to the next. Nonetheless, no one really knows how such behaviour could have come about by evolution.

These birds are not moral agents capable of taking decisions in order to deceive, but are simply acting in accordance with an instinctive pattern inherited from their progenitors. This behaviour works for animal predators, but not for a human being, who will respond to this broken wing ruse by raiding the nearby nest. Birds resort to this trick without any prior theoretical reflection or abstract reasoning, in order to avoid the immediate, serious, danger of an unforeseen attack. The do it instinctively, without thinking, because they are not able to think. They act robotically, as if programmed to do so. How could they have acquired this deceptive behaviour? No one knows. But they are not morally responsible for their deceit, because they are not moral agents that have thought about it, and then decided to lie. They have simply inherited this feature because that is how they were designed to act.

Some people believe that by studying animal behaviour of this kind we may some day be able to understand the origins of lying and truthfulness among human beings. However, they are forgetting the huge moral and spiritual chasm that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. No judge would ever accept that the lie told by a witness in order to save a friend from conviction, could be the mere consequence of a pattern of behaviour inherited through evolution. Rather they would see it as the result of a free moral choice, generated by personal beliefs in abstract human concepts, such as justice or duty, etc.

To my mind, what these lies and survival-oriented dissimulations in the animal kingdom indicate is that behind them there is an intelligence which transcends nature itself. If this is so, human science will never be able to gain access to it, because, given the purely material scope of its methodology, it is unable to analyse that which is immaterial or transcendent.



1. F. C. R. Cunha & M. Griesser, 2021, Who do you trust? Wild birds use social knowledge to avoid being deceived, Science Advances, 28 May 2021, Vol 7, Issue 22,




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