Bird Minds

This post is based on “The Genius of Birds,” a book by Jennifer Ackerman. Like humans, birds are kingdom Animalia; phylum Chordata; subphylum Vertebrata. There the common descent ends. Birds are class Aves; humans are Mammalia. Aristotle wrote in his History of Animals that animals carry elements of our “human qualities and attitudes,” such as “fierceness, mildness or cross-temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirits or low cunning, and with regard to intelligence, something akin to sagacity.”

When HM was a graduate student anthropomorphizing, claiming that an animal had anything like human intelligence, consciousness, or subjective feeling was a mortal sin. But if HM imposed this standard on his fellow humans he would have been unable to communicate or interact with them effectively. Although one needs to tread carefully in this area, wouldn’t it be a mistake to assume that because bird brains are fundamentally different from us and ours, that there is nothing in common between our mental abilities and theirs? Darwin in his book The Descent of Man argued that animals and humans differ in their mental powers only in degree, not in kind. As was discussed in previous posts, many have strong feelings regarding the possibility of kinship. Primatologist Frans de Waal calls this “anthropodenial,” blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other species. He says, “Those who are in anthropodenial try to build a brick wall to separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.”

There are many ways of measuring birds’ intelligence And there is a very wide range of intelligence across the species. It ranges from the extremely slow, to some that appear to verge on genius. Lefebvre thought that a good way of estimating bird intelligence would be to look at occurrences of birds doing unusual new things in the wild. This notion had been proposed three decades earlier by Jane Goodall and her colleague Hans Kummer. They made a plea for measuring a wild animal’s intelligence by looking at its ability to find solutions to problems in its natural setting. This can be found in an animal’s ability to innovate in its own environment, “to find solutions to a novel problem, or a novel solution to an old one.”

So the task becomes finding which kinds of birds are the most innovative in the wild. Lefebvre said, “Experimental and observational studies of cognition are important, but a taxonomic count like this would provide a unique opportunity and would avoid some of the pitfalls of animal intelligence studies,” such as using testing devices that are far removed from what an animal does in its natural environment.

Lefebvre reviewed seventy-five years worth of bird journals for reports featuring key words like “unusual,” “novel,” or “first reported instance,” and came up with more than 2300 examples from hundreds of different species. Some of these were discoveries of strange new finds such as a roadrunner sitting on a roof next to a hummingbird feeder and picking off the hummers; a great skua in Antartica snuggling in among newborn seal pups and sipping milk from their lactating mother; herons holding down a rabbit or a muskrat; a pelican in London swallowing pigeon; a gull ingesting a blue jay; or a normally insectivorous yellowhead in New Zealand seen for the first time time eating bush lily fruits.

Taken from “The Genius of Birds:” Other examples involved ingenious new ways of getting at food. There was the cowbird in South Africa using a twig to pick through cow dung. Several observers noted instances of green herons using insects as bait, placing them delicately on the surface of the water to lure fish. A herring gull adapted its normal shell-dropping technique to nail a rabbit. Bald eagles ice fishing in northern Arizona discovered a cache of dead fathead minnow forces under the surface of an ice-covered lake. They were seen chipping holes in the ice, then jumping up and down on the surface, using their body weight to push the minnows up through the holes. There was a report of vultures in Zimbabwe that perched on barbed-wire fences near minefields during the wars of liberation, waiting for gazelles and other grazers to wander and detonate the explosives providing a pulverized ready-made meal.

The smartest birds according Lefevbre’s scale.
Corvids with ravens and crows as the clear outliers along with parrots. Then came grackles, raptors (especially falcons and hawks, woodpeckers, hornbills, gulls, kingfishers, roadrunners and herons. Also high on this totem pole were birds in the sparrow and tit families. Owls were excluded because they are nocturnal and their innovations are rarely observed directly. Among those at the low end were quails, ostriches, bustards, turkeys, and nightjars.

Lefebvre examined if families of birds that show a lot of innovation behaviors in the wild have bigger brains. In most cases, there was a correlation. Two birds weighing 320 grams: the American crow, with an innovation count of sixteen has a brain of 7 grams, while a partridge , with one innovation, has a brain of only 1.9 grams. Two smaller birds weighing 85 grams: the great spotted woodpecker, with an innovation rate of nine has a braining weighing 2.7 grams, and the quail with one innovation, only 0.73 gram.

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