Bird brained: The intelligence of birds

For a long time, bird brained has been considered an insult, a way of saying someone is stupid, dim witted, silly.  And the view of birds has coincided with that until a recent deluge of scientific research suggested otherwise.

“There’s a kind of bird that creates colourful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty-three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers where it put them months later.  There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks.  There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend basic principles of physics, remember the past and plan for the future.”
– Jennifer Ackerman

In other words, birds are not as stupid as we’ve taken them for.  Don’t get me wrong, in any species, humans included, there is a range of what we call intelligence* and some birds are much cleverer than others.  And as the list of accomplishments above shows, birds, like humans, can be intelligent in a number of different ways.

If you haven’t come across this idea before, basically the theory goes that there are nine types of human intelligence and you can excel in one area and flop in another.  The areas are:

  • Naturalist (nature smart)
  • Musical (sound smart)
  • Logical-mathematical (number/reasoning smart)
  • Existential (life smart)
  • Interpersonal (people smart)
  • Bodily-kinesthetic (body smart)
  • Linguistic (word smart)
  • Intra-personal (self smart)
  • Spatial (picture smart)

So the bird that can move to music could be musically smart, the birds who can do maths might be logical-mathematical smart.  As a side note, it’s interesting to consider how you fit in.  If you aren’t good at the traditionally academic subjects it’s easy to think you aren’t particularly intelligent but you could be really good at interpersonal intelligence or bodily-kinesthetically.  In terms of birds, we have pigeons who aren’t very good at problem solving but they can remember different objects for long periods of time, they can tell the difference between pictures and they have excellent abilities when it comes to navigating the skies, even in unfamiliar places.

So, in what ways are birds intelligent?  Well, they can learn, solve problems and invent new solutions to old problems.  They can make and use tools and even use tools so they can reach the tool they actually need.  They can be socially intelligent, they can have excellent memories and they can find their way home even if they’re blown off course.

But not all birds can do these things.  And this will come to be important as humans continue to change the world.  Changing the environment will negatively impact on those birds who can’t change behaviour quickly, who can’t learn new ways of getting food etc.  They won’t be able to adapt to climate change and other issues affecting them and there is a high chance that these species will disappear.

Crows on the other hand, in particular New Caledonia crows, are amazing:

Aesop’s fable about the crow dropping stones into water is something which actually happens and we have numerous videos of corvids engaging in entertaining looking activities:

The snowboarding crow may well simply be playing, something which is shown to coincide with intellect with play often being considered a way of trying things out, testing curiosity.

Another form of intellect found in the corvid family is self awareness.  Magpies who see themselves in mirrors know that they are looking at themselves, something which requires high cognitive skills and is restricted to only a few animals.  But be careful, they can recognise individual humans as well.

An experiment was carried out with crows and they came to see the experimenter as a threat.  They would dive bomb him and harass him when they saw him.  But even more amazingly, nine years later, they still considered him a threat, even though it will have been a different cohort of crows.  They clearly have a way of communicating threats between themselves and even between generations.

We also see examples of birds which use bait to lure in the food they actually want, such as types of heron using insects to attract fish.  There is social intelligence and this can be seen in the activities of birds in different types of flocks and relationships and birds may even experience empathy although more research needs to be carried out.  Migration and the ability to navigate from unknown areas back to where you want to be is yet another skill which can involve and demonstrate intelligence and I’ll look more at that when I look at migration.

If you want to learn more about the types of bird intelligence as well as impact of brain size and structure then Jennifer Ackerman’s book is for you.  She also goes into detail about how the type of upbringing birds have may affect intelligence, generally finding that birds who are independent from birth start life with a bigger brain but it doesn’t develop as much after birth.  Birds who are nurtured and looked after by parents on the other hand start with smaller brains but they develop a lot more.  It’s all really interesting stuff, some of it may prove to be applicable to humans later down the line when more scientific study has been carried out.  Despite that she makes it all very easy to read and it was a book I didn’t want to put down.

Further information:

*a controversial word when applied to animals but I’m using it for this post.  A key issue is how do you define and measure intelligence.  IQ tests are ok for humans but even then they don’t necessarily reveal what you want to find out, how do you measure interpersonal intelligence in an IQ test for example.  Birds and other animals do show what looks like intelligence but it doesn’t always look like our own type of intelligence.

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