Term "Bird Brain" Taking
On Whole New Meaning
By James Donahue
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.