The Intelligence of Birds

Humans are controversial creatures. We hear amazing stories about people risking their lives to save animals all the time. On the other hand, human cruelty towards animals has no parallel in the animal world. No, we don't flood our streets with rivers of blood from sacrificed animals to please some mythical entity of the invisible kingdom, but we still engage in animal torture on industrial scale behind closed doors, which is the evidence of our evolved capacity to hide our crimes toward animals, not the evidence of our moral and cultural superiority.

Disrespect towards animals has deep roots in our language. Birds were thought to be stupid. The nut-brains fly into windows, peck at their reflections, and buzz into power lines. Something worthless is "for the birds." A politician with poor performance record is a "lame duck." To be "henpecked" is to be harassed with persistent nagging. The term "jay" when applied to a person suggests someone stupid or inexperienced. The expression "bird brain" is used for stupid, foolish, or scatterbrained person. The slur came from the belief that birds have brains so small that they can only rely on instinctive behavior.

Hooded Crow

A flood of new research has overturned the old views and people are starting to accept that birds are far more intelligent than we ever imagined; in some ways close to our primate relatives.

  • Pigeon can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles and figure out where it is going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.
  • Jays remember thousands of morsels they buried in particular places and when, so they can retrieve the morsel before it spoils. (To have such a memory!)
  • Songbirds learn their songs the way we learn languages and pass these tunes along.
  • Birds are capable to use geometrical clues and landmarks to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through unknown territory, and locate hidden objects.
  • Nutcrackers bury their seeds at a perfect depth for germination; thus seeds that go undiscovered (approximately 30 percent) can produce more seeds. This bird truly deserves a medal to honor its efforts in conservation and propagation.
  • Crows drop acorns and other encased food items onto roads, using cars as the tool to crack open the hard shells.
  • Pigeons recognize familiar human faces.
  • Piping plovers are masters of theatrics, capable of diverting predators from their shallow, exposed nests with a feigned, "injured wing" display.
  • Crows use tools to get food, but they don't just use sticks to get insects out of holes in trees. They first bend the end of the stick into a hook, so it works better at poking out insects.

If you ever get called "bird brain" you should take it as a compliment!


 

 


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