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.


Birds in Old Norse Culture

I’m going to look at folklore and mythology more generally in another post but whilst I was doing some reading about birds this month I accidentally fell into the world of animals and old norse traditions*… So we’re having a bit of a specialised focus on birds in norse mythology first. This also ties in with my endless wonder and fascination with members of the corvid family.

For those of you who aren’t up on your birds, corvids include crows, ravens and magpies and they are intelligent and intriguing birds. I’ve already written a lot about them in my animal spirit posts and I really do suggest you take a look. There is some really interesting factual stuff about them as well as a bit of background into the myths and beliefs that surround them.

On that note, I’m going to smoothly navigate myself back to norse mythology by introducing Odin and his two ravens, Hugin (from Old Norse for thought) and Munin (memory). They would fly around the world and report back to Odin, a god, about what was going on amongst mortals. 
Odin with the two ravens

This connection with the birds earned Odin the name Raven God. Having bestowed the gift of speech on the Ravens, Hugin and Munin are in Odin’s debt and the relationship is one which benefits all involved.

It’s important to note here that being able to understand the language of birds was a sign of great wisdom. Typically, it is royal characters who are able to understand the language of birds and generally involves an initiation of sorts. The birds then offer these individuals pearls of wisdom, advice and important information.

The ability to give birds the power to speak is one that lies ahead of the ability to hear birds, possibly reiterating Odin’s role as God and hence his place in the hierarchy above the royalty we shall look at now.

In the story of Sigurd and the dragon, Sigurd is sent off on a quest to slay a dragon who guards treasure. He drinks the blood of the dragon and finds he can understand what the birds around him are saying. The birds warn of betrayal and offer advice. He takes their advice, escapes death and instead follows a path of wealth, wisdom and spiritual knowledge.

This tale is shown in an 11th century carving:

The details for each part of the image can be seen on Wikipedia.

As with many tales, the story of Sigurd slaying the dragon takes a young man, places him in front of a challenge which he defeats, then offers him a gift or the result of his initiation, and then demands he face another challenge. This allows him to prove himself worthy of his noble birth and place in the royal line.

Sigurd is apparently also descended from Odin and that, along with his ability to understand the birds, make him an excellent candidate for future king. As we’ll see when we look more generally at folklore and beliefs, the idea of birds as messengers for gods is a common one and we often see them moving between the mundane world and the spiritual world. This means that Sigurd’s ability allows him to be as close to the Otherworld(s) as any mortal could be.

We later find that other characters can gain Sigurd’s gift by consuming his heart and also that it appears to pass onto children and other stories also involve wisdom acquired from birds changing prospects.

In a different text, a king is said to be “so wise that he understood the speech of birds.” This king, King Dag, had a sparrow which, like Odin’s ravens, flew around and returned with news for him. As with Odin, the tale presents the king as being wise due to the knowledge of the birds, his ability to understand them means he can carry out his role well.

Another tells of a farmer who can understand birds, in contrast to the king of the story who is not portrayed as wise, especially intelligent or knowledgeable. One line of thinking here is that the farmer is actually Odin who, in other stories, has appeared in disguise.

Returning to Odin, we find stories of his transformation into a bird, in particular eagles which are often associated with divine knowledge. With this in mind, and with Odin being a god of wisdom, perhaps the birds throughout these tales are messengers from Odin, or the god himself.

I feel it’s only fitting to end with a quote from the paper which started my tumble into animals in Old Norse traditions:

With their capacity to fly and sing, birds universally hold a special place in human experience as symbols of transcendence and numinous knowledge; Old Norse tradition reflects this reality.
Timothy Bourns

*As such, I am obviously no expert and you really should read The Language of Birds in Old Norse Tradition.

Crow: Animal Dreaming


Crow (and Raven): Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

As there’s such a crossover, do also look at the raven card!

There are three kinds of crow in Australia and they are often muddled with the ravens both in real life and in mythology.  We see the crow as a trickster as well as an acestral being.

In terms of the trickster narrative, the crow is often depected as going to any length to get what it wants.  It’s an instant gratification trope which we can see in everyday life; people going for their lusts despite the consequences, such as buying the latest phone despite the epic debt which will ensue.  It’s a here and now, ego centric way of living which society right now really fosters.  In mythology, the crow normally pays the price for it.  One example is his desire for fire turning him black.

We live in a world which is desperately trying to see us things and insisting that we should get x now.  But following this I want, I get approach can lead to a lack of satisfaction.  Yes, sure you had a few minutes joy with your new phone but now what?  Another way of approaching things is to savour the waiting.  Think about when you were little and waiting to go on holiday or a day out.  The waiting was exciting and was as much a part of the process as the actual trip.  Enjoy the journey not just the destination.

Looking at the crow in other aboriginal culture, we find them in opposition to the eagle.   Half of the communities are eagle and the other half crow.  Like the yin and the yang, together they make a whole.  The eagle representing day and light, the crow night and dark.  Opposites but complements.  Two halves of a whole.  I also read about the crow and the white cockatoo being in this type of relationship.

A story of the crow and his brother the magpie, says they were both vain and argued over who was the most beautiful.  One day when they were fighting, they fell out of the tree and into the fire where the crow got burnt all over and the magpie only in part.

CROW LAW, by Linda Hogan

The temple where crow worships
walks forward in tall, black grass.
Betrayal is crow’s way of saying grace
to the wolf
so it can eat
what is left
when blood is on the ground,
until what remains of moose
is crow
walking out
the sacred temple of ribs
in a dance of leaving
the red tracks of scarce and private gods.
It is the oldest war
where moose becomes wolf and crow,
where the road ceases
to become the old forest
where crow is calling,
where we are still afraid.

The crow is the keeper of sacred, spiritual law, the holder of the knowledge of the cycles that keep the world and life spinning.  The crow, with all this knowledge of nature’s law, can shapeshift and bend time and space.  The crow is beyond the mundane physical laws which bind us.  The crow, like the raven, is magical and knows the secrets of the universe.  Ask nicely, be patient, and perhaps he will share some of these.



Raven: Animal Dreaming


Crow (and Raven): Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

I talked a lot about the raven in the wild unknown crow post because in mythology they tend to overlap and indeed a lot of people won’t be entirely clear which bird is in front of them.  So I find it interesting that the animal dreaming deck has both a crow and a raven with quite different keywords!

The main difference between the two birds is that the raven is bigger and prefers to live away from humans whereas crows are frequently seen in towns and cities.  It’s not generally very helpful for identification of a live bird but the base of the crows feathers is white whereas the ravens are grey.

There are three types of raven found in Australia.  The Australian Raven is black with white eyes and the feathers on their throat are longer than most species and are extended when the raven calls.  They are usually seen in pairs.

Crows and ravens are commonly portrayed as trickster characters.  For the Noongar people, the raven was “the Watcher” and was wily and unpredicatable.

Magick is the keyword for this bird in the animal dreaming, as it is in the Medicine Cards, a deck and book by Jamie Sams and David Carson.  As we saw with the wild unknown, the crow and the raven are highly intelligent, intriguing birds and I can completely understand why some people would see them as being magical – there is something to them which is more than bird, a god or goddess in animal form perhaps?  Or a witch’s familiar? There is also their colouring – black is a powerful colour, it is everything and nothing, it is intense and mysterious.

“To have a raven’s knowledge” is apparently an Irish saying meaning to have a seer’s supernatural power.

As with the wild unknown, I’d check out the crow as well given there is such a crossover.


Crow (and Raven): Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck


This post with consider both the crow and the raven. They are from the same family and are often used interchangeably in myths, legends and beliefs.

There is so much to say about these amazing birds that I can only hope to touch on a fraction of it.  If this is a card that appears for you or you resonate with, do go and do further research and get to know more about these fantastic animals.  Definitely check out Crows, smarter than you think: John Marzluff at TEDxRainier.

Crows and ravens

The main difference between the two birds is that the raven is bigger and prefers to live away from humans whereas crows are frequently seen in towns and cities.

Crows and ravens are amazingly intelligent.  Mindblowingly so.  Seriously watch that TEDx talk!  They are brilliant problem solvers and one of few animals to use tools, and they even use tools to get tools to get to the food which speaks volumes about their brains.  All of this mental skill means they are very adaptable and good with change.

They have great human facial recognition and also great memories.  If you annoy a crow or raven, be careful, they will remember and hold a grudge…

Perhaps another sign of their intelligence is their communication ability.  They have lots of different calls and each one has a meaning and they can share messages.  As a card of the air suit, this is very relevant and we will see shortly that they are portrayed as messengers of the gods.  These communication skills ties them with clairvoyance, telepathy and prophesy.

In terms of diet, they eat anything pretty much.  Especially the crow who is a very opportunistic feeder which aids their survival.  In Japan, the crow or raven, I can’t remember which, has been regularly observed using cars at traffic lights to crack open nuts.  They will hide, or cache, food to be eaten later which isn’t exciting in itself, a lot of animals do this… BUT if they are being watched they falsely cache, either depositing a stone or nothing at all!  This is perhaps one reason they are known as a trickster or mischief maker!

They watch and observe, masters of seeing without being seen, and learn from each others experiences.  So if you’ve been mean to a crow or raven they will tell their friends.  The lesson here is, don’t annoy them.  They are already considered bad luck in some cultures so you’ll really be in trouble if you add a grudge into the mix.

Crows gather in huge groups and are very sociable creatures.  Crows often mate for life, and young from previous years often help with raising their siblings.  They have even been known to hold ‘funerals’ where they gather around a dead bird and are still and quiet for a few minutes.

I mentioned in the post about the wolf that the wolf and the raven help each other out with hunting; the raven can see where the prey is from above which guides the wolf and then the raven can enjoy the leftovers.


It could well be simply it’s colour which has led the crow or raven to be associated with death, ill tidings and bad luck but a number of myths exist which tell of the bird being once white.  These generally involve it flying into fire and charring it’s feathers. Sometimes this is to steal fire and sometimes it’s to bring fire to the humans or animals who didn’t have it.

In mythology, we see the raven featured in a number of creation myths.  Once he had created earth, he created man and then, to amuse himself, he created woman and has never been bored since.  Perhaps this explains why these birds always appear to be watching us – are we starring in a play for them?!

In another myth, which I can’t find at the moment, raven got into a fight with the coyote.  Both creatures were immortal and thus they would fight for eternity as they were evenly matched.  At times the raven is on top and ruling the fight and the world is good.  At times the coyote is on top and ruling the fight and the world is less good.  This fight will continue until the world ends and beyond as in a fight between two immortals, there can be no winner.

There are also various versions of a story in which the raven gave us the sun.  In the one I read but can’t find right now, the sun was a small golden orb, like that in the card, and the raven didn’t know what it was.  At some point in the story, it ends up in the sky where it shines so brightly that it becomes the sun.

In Chinese mythology, a three legged raven lives in the sun.

In Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn.  Their names mean thought and memory and they would fly all over the world bringing back news of all they have seen and heard for Odin.

Another deity associated with crows and ravens is the Irish goddess Morrigan who is a triple goddess linked with birth, death and rebirth as well as war.  It was said that she could transform into a raven and would make advances on soldiers.  If they refused they would go on to die in battle.  Since the Morrigan always knew in advance the outcome of any battle, the Irish proverb “…has a Raven’s knowledge” means the person it describes can see into the future.  Crows and ravens were said to be a guide from our world to the afterworld, possibly something which arose from the stories of the Morrigan.

Another death association is seen in the Raven Mocker of the Cherokee.  This evil being takes life from the old, the sick and the dying.  It then adds this life to their own and thus increased their life span.  Hearing a Raven Mocker is a sign that someone will soon die.

I really could go on and on but we’ll try and keep this brief.  So as well as birth, light, life and death, it was also believed that witches could turn into ravens to escape danger and that the crow holds within it’s mind’s eye three realities; past, present and future.  Thus tying in with the clairvoyance mentioned above.

Wild Unknown Tarot


The Hierophant pictures a black bird which I have always assumed to be a crow.  This card is about tradition, religion, teachers and conformity.

But as I’ve already written so much, I’m going to direct you to the lovely Carrie Mallon who has done a series of posts discussing the Wild Unknown tarot cards.

And in conclusion…

Woah that was a lot of info.  Let’s sum it up, these birds are:

  • highly intelligent and excellent problem solvers
  • great memory but may bear grudges
  • great communicators as well as links with clairvoyance, telepathy and prophesy
  • messengers of the gods
  • creators of life and light
  • strong links with death

So, now that I’m coming to the end of my love letter to the crow and the raven, let’s look at what that all might mean if you’ve pulled this card.

Use your head, think things out, this bird is very much of the mental realm.  Look at how you are communicating with others, are you being clear in what you’re saying, are you being truthful, are others being truthful, are others saying more than their words suggest?

But as well as all the strong mind focused work, the crow and the raven are also creators.  You can bring life into your world, you can create your own sun, your own life force.  What sparks energy in  you?  What brings a light to your face?  Do these things.  Illuminate yourself.  And to do that may mean something has to die.  Something has to change or be let go of.  And that’s ok.  As we’ve seen strongly with the vulture and again here, death is life.