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Bird Brains

The Remarkable Intelligence Of Birds

By James Donahue

I have always had a special love for the birds. In my youth, while growing up on the family farm in Michigan, we had a special relationship with the wrens that nested each season under the eaves of one of the porches of our house. When we plowed each spring we looked out for the killdeer that nested on the ground in a particular field. There was always a small, unplowed spot in that field where that mother bird hatched her eggs and raised her young. For a while I took on a hobby of spotting and identifying the various birds that passed our way during the migration season. I would go to sleep listening to the nightly songs of the whippoorwills and the mourning doves as I lay in my bed next to an open window.

Over the years I have been a silent observer of bird behavior, and I have been amazed at the special intelligence they have shown. I remember a crow that seemed to enjoy teasing my father when he seeded his garden in the spring. That bird would watch as Dad dropped his seeds in the open trench of a garden row, then drop down and follow him, eating the seeds when my father’s back was turned. Dad tried everything to chase away that bird. He even built an elaborate scarecrow that stood for a while in the garden. The bird would roost on the arms of the scarecrow, almost in mockery. What was even more amazing was that this crow calculated the window to my parent’s bedroom, and would be standing on the sill in the morning, looking in when Mom and Dad were getting up.

Our son and his wife owned an African Grey parrot when they lived in the San Francisco area a few years ago. This bird had an amazing vocabulary and you could almost hold a conversation with it. It was eerie to sit in the same room with that parrot as it studied every move we made, and listened to every word we said.

One Christmas when we lived in an apartment complex at the edge of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Show Low, Arizona, I was sitting in the morning sun on an open balcony. I had a pocket filled with peanuts that I had grabbed from the seasonal nut bowl. Suddenly a small woodpecker landed on the railing nearby. On a lark I dropped a nut. The bird quickly flew down, grabbed the nut in its beak and flow off. Shortly after this I had three woodpeckers on the railing, all obviously wanting a treat. I began dropping nuts and watching the birds fly off with their prizes, only to return in hopes of getting another.

I began experimenting with these birds. I started dropping the nuts closer and closer to where I was sitting. There appeared to be a limit as to how close the birds would come to me. Once I reached that limit, something interesting happened. The birds refused to take the nut as long as I was watching. Suddenly I heard a loud rapping on the wall of the apartment building behind me. When I turned to look, the nut disappeared. The birds had worked in harmony to distract me so they could safely steal their prize.

Because of these and other personal experiences with the birds, I read with great interest stories about various experiments with birds by biologists who have been amazed at the collective behavior that these creatures display. It appears that they have a social order that not only involves planning ahead by storing food, but at least one species, the western scrub jays, seems to mourn their dead.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, led by Teresa Iglesias, in a paper published in the journal Animal Behavior, told how these jays gather around the dead body of one of their own, calling unique "zeep" sounds which appears to be a call to other jays to join them in their mourning ceremony. While doing this, the jays stop foraging. This behavior sometimes continues for more than a day.

The Davis researchers experimented by creating false wooden replicas of dead jays, and even used stuffed jays, and the birds were not fooled. They reacted indifferently to the decoys.

In yet another study, published in the journal Biology Letters, Professor Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge, found through experiments with Eurasian jays that these birds appear to not only store food for future needs, but will "pack" lunches with mixed varieties of foods when given the opportunity.

To learn if these jays thought about the future, Clayton’s team created special boxes for the birds to use to store caches of a variety of foods. Then the birds were treated to quantities of peanuts for several days, then later given raisins. From a complex series of experiments, they discovered that the birds were mixing the excess nuts and raisins in the special boxes. It was as if they were packing a variety of foods for future meals.

Yet another research team at New Zealand’s University of Auckland have found that crows whittle branches into hooks and tear leaves into barbed probes to extract food from hard-to-reach nooks. Thus the crows are showing problem-solving behavior and innovative ways to fashion primitive tools in their quest to find food.

In one interesting experiment, the New Zealand team captured seven wild crows, placed them in an aviary, and then created a complicated problem for them to solve. Each bird, acting alone, was placed in a cage where there was out-of-reach food, but tools that could be used to extract the food. This involved a complicated combination of using a piece of string a long stick that was also out of the bird’s easy reach, and another short tool that could recover the long stick. All of the birds solved the problem and recovered the food, often on the first attempt.