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Term "Bird Brain" Taking On Whole New Meaning

 

By James Donahue

March 2005

 

Recent experiments by Bernd Heinrich and Thomas Bugnyar with young ravens at the University of Vermont found that these birds not only will follow the gaze of a human located across the room behind a barrier, but will sometimes look over or around the barrier in an effort to see what the person is looking at.

 

The experiments suggested that the birds are conscious to understanding another creature’s thoughts and can be curious to find out more information.

 

A second study conducted by Bugnyar, published in Animal Cognition, suggests that the ravens also have mastered the art of deception.

 

Using color coded film containers with easy-to-remove caps and filled with cheese, two ravens were taught to figure out which color code contained food, then pry open the correct container and eat whatever was found inside.

 

During the experiment, one bird proved to be quick at learning which code lead to the food. The other raven, however, was more aggressive and simply moved in on the smarter bird, stealing the food from it.

 

Bugnyar was surprised, however, when the smart bird developed a trick that misled the aggressive one. He opened empty containers. While the aggressive bird was rummaging around trying to find the food in them, he went to the food and took it for himself.

 

To carry the story even farther, the guise only worked for a while. Soon the second bird began doing the work and choosing the correct color code that led to food, Bugnyar reported.

 

The experiments reminded me of a game I played with some birds on the open air patio of an apartment we once rented while living near Show Low, Arizona.

 

We lived on the edge of the Apache-Sitgrieve National Forest that consisted of thousands of acres of beautiful ponderosa pine. Thus wild life was always in abundance around our home.

 

That winter we began feeding peanuts to the squirrels that lived in the trees, and before long, found that the jays and other birds enjoyed the nuts as well.

 

One spring day, as I was sitting in a lawn chair and enjoying the fresh mountain air on that patio, I was visited by three little woodpeckers that landed on a railing not ten feet from where I sat. They were old friends and it was obvious they came for nuts that I just happened to have in my pocket.

 

I tossed a few nuts to them and the birds quickly took them off into the nearby trees to pry open and consume. Then they returned for more.

 

That morning I decided to experiment with my feathered friends and find out just how trusting they were. Each time I threw a nut, I made it land closer and closer to where I was sitting. As the birds got closer and closer, they became more and more wary, watching me closely for any sudden moves before they whisked in and snapped up the prize.

 

Eventually the nut got too close. Lying no more than five feet away, the birds decided it was too close for them to risk as long as I looked at them and at the nut. They made a few brave rushes toward the prize, but always turned away before reaching it.

 

Suddenly I heard a loud rapping noise on the wooden exterior wall behind me. When I turned, I found one of the woodpeckers pecking on the wall and making this noise. When I turned back again, the nut was gone.

 

Those birds worked together that morning, diverting my gaze just long enough for them to steal the nut near my feet.
















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