Unveiling bird intelligence: Beyond big brains
Who’s the smartest bird in the world? This question has been answered many times, to the best of our ability, as each time the question is asked there is something new to add to the assessment criteria. Determining intelligence in animals is challenging; the old theories of big brain = big thoughts have thankfully fallen mostly by the wayside as we discover more about what the parts of the brain actually do, regardless of size, although there is still a connection between relative brain size.
Cognitive processes like short- and long-term memory, fashioning tools, organizational abilities and planning for the future have all been seen in birds with larger brains than some of their compatriots.
Street smarts in the avian world
Parrots, corvids and several species of smaller songbirds who are gregarious, or live together in numbers, have all exhibited what is known as “street smarts”, the knowledge of how to deal with problems through experience; as that knowledge develops, the same problem later down the line doesn’t present the same difficulties.
The frankly stunning aptitude for making tools out of everyday objects, working out how to use inanimate objects as fulcrums for leverage, or utilize the presence of heavy man-made moving objects (cars) as a crushing tool to crack open hard nut shells on a highway, learning and reciting vocabulary, and sharing all this knowledge among flocks; all of these behaviors are being scrutinized in labs and out in the field all over the globe as these fascinating creatures reveal they have more sides to themselves than a myriagon.
Clever is as clever does
Caledonian crows rocked our world in 2002 when scientists watched amazed as Betty, at the time thought to be a unique character, bent a particular kind of tough grass stem to extract a morsel of food from a thin glass tube. When the other members of her group were given the same challenge, it only took one failed attempt to perfect the same task, proving that they have the ability to learn and improve on their errors.
Eurasian jays have shown mind-blowing impressive memory capabilities by recalling the locations of thousands of hidden food caches months later
So much so that jays are now being encouraged to nest in many parts of Europe to help rewild and recuperate ancient forests, single-wingedly providing the perfect environment for leftover cached seeds and kernels to germinate and grow into new, amazing trees.
The Kea is a medium-sized alpine parrot in New Zealand, and whilst known for their problem-solving skills, it is their curious nature that makes these guys stand out. After strutting around your car for a bit and sizing it up, they will then happily start dismantling it and manipulating any bendy bits like screen wipers and thin body parts in their beaks or using the zygodactyl foot arrangement unique to parrots, two toes front and two at the back.
Easily dismissible as being naughty, this behavior actually shows they have advanced mechanical cognition. Who knows what they go off and make with all our stuff when out of sight.
Birds navigating a shifting world
But of course, birds are not choosing to reveal their skills – we are now just more able to see what they have been doing all along out in the open for millennia. As we too shift our perspective over time, having eventually conceded in the 17th century that we are not the center of the universe, science has been allowed to stride forth.
Progressive minds have looked closer and closer at bird behaviors now there is the general acceptance that Man does not have dominion over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. But we certainly influence how they live, in turn forcing them to find solutions to even greater problems than extracting food from a tube.
Brain development and migration
Humanity’s effect on this planet is now plain for all to see, if we choose to look; animals are seeking out ways to mitigate drastic changes and a shift in the availability of resources like food and water, whilst battling ever more extreme weather. While citizens in some countries in Europe and other parts of the world struggle to adapt to increasingly hotter and drier summers and warmer, wetter winters, migratory birds have been holding a feather tip to the wind and figuring out their departure dates – if at all.
In Europe particularly, increasingly species like cranes and starlings are choosing to stay put in their breeding grounds, instead of wintering in Spain, France or in the north of Africa as they have done for centuries. Others are changing or shortening their routes to try and avoid storm cells and heatwaves. But scientists fear a deeper issue with these changing or ceasing patterns. A link has been found between how much a species nurtures and cares for its young and their brain development and size.
The aforementioned Caledonian crows feed their young for up to two years, ensuring they receive the right level of proteins for brain development. If migratory birds make the shift to resident, pressures on food availability, already strained due to habitat loss, could compromise their ability to find enough food to fuel their own brains as well as their young. A protraction of this scenario could mean a world of smaller-brained birds, which means their behaviors will change, and the consequences of that are not well anticipated.
Embracing bird brains
But one recent story that hit the newsstands this summer has had many bird-lovers out there smiling wryly to ourselves as we contemplate the frankly awful actions of others and the unintended excellent consequences of those actions. In the Netherlands, people were amazed to find Eurasian magpie nests in trees in Rotterdam, Antwerp, Enschede and also in Glasgow, Scotland, that had a rather sharp-witted feature.
Anti-bird spikes, manufactured and placed along building ledges to deter birds, had been stripped from their edifices and carried off into the branches, where they were then deftly woven into a fortress with the spikes poking outwards, protecting nests within from external predators. This ingenious appropriation by these clever black and white birds goes to show that birds live by their wits and are a living example of the lyrics from one of our finest songwriters and bird-lovers, Eddi Reader: it’s not what you’ve been given, it’s what you do with what you’ve got.