Bird Brain?

Crow Water Displacement

The term bird brain stems back to the early 1900’s and was commonly used to refer to someone as unintelligent.  It originated due to the relatively small size of a birds skull, inferring they must have a small brain.  However, a birds brain in proportion to it’s body size is quite large in comparison to many animals.  In fact, many birds have more neurons packed into their brains than brains of some primates with similar masses.  The structures of a birds brain compared to a primates brain are also drastically different due to the space to work with and their most recent common ancestor being roughly 300 million years old.

Suzana Herculano-Houzel, Vanderbilt University

Crows to the average individual, probably don’t seem like the brightest animal, but they are incredibly intelligent!  A group of researchers on a college campus performed a study where they wore masks, captured and taged seven crows and then released them.  From that point on anytime that mask used was worn on campus that person would be dive bombed by crows, even crows that weren’t captured.  First, this shows us crows remember faces, secondly, crows can also inform other crows who wronged them, and third.. don’t mess with crows.  Another, fascinating story about crows comes from a mother and daughter in Seattle, who regularly fed their local crows.  The result?  More and more crows who would follow them around and even waited at the bus stop to get fed.  So whats so cool about this? Well.. the crows brought mother and daughter tons of gifts, typically small shinny objects such as buttons, an earing, a screw etc..  Some small dead brids were also delivered as gifts which is a common courtship routine for crows.  Crows are also able to solve fairly complex puzzels set up in experiments.  One of the experiments performed involved two tubse filled halfway (not half full or half empty) one with water and one with sand.  A piece of food for the bird was floated on top of the water and rested on top of the sand, both out of reach of the crow.  All that was given as a tool for the bird were a number of rocks.  The crows showed their knowledge of water displacement at the level of a 5-7 year old child, dropping larger rocks into the tube first to raise the water level!  There are many more complex puzzels these fascinating birds are able to solve such as the example below!

Pigeons are another type of bird not known for their intelligence but they have more ability than you may think.  Pigeons have the ability to count, which is cool and all, but bees have the ability to count as well.. But pigeons are the only known non-primate animal capable of sorting numbers by size.  To do this, clusters of dots were on a screen and the pigeon had to peck the dots in order of how many there were.  Elizabeth Brannon even went as far to compare their learning to that of monkeys as they did just as well in their testing.  In this article, Damian Scarf also explains where the trait for counting may have evolved, saying it is more likely that both pigeons and primates developed the ability independently because their most recent common ancestor would have been prior to the existance of dinosaurs.

Pigeon Study‘ Photo taken by William Van der Vliet

There are many more intelligent birds, but the last one I want to cover (for now) is the Western scrub jay.  Scrub jays play an important role in the populator debate topic of “theory of mind” in non human animals.  This stems from an interesting behavior observed in scrub jays when caching (hiding) their food.  When some scrub jays cache their food while being watched by another bird who could steal the food, they wait until the other bird leaves and re-caches their meal.  This does not happen to all scrub jays however, only jays who have stolen the cachings of another scrub jay show this behavior.  This argues that scrub jays may, put themselves in the feathers of the other bird, and know that observing birds are potential theives.  Another test performed with the scrub jay test the bird’s metacognitive abilities.  This study was conducted using cups where the researchers would be able to hide food while scrub jays were observing.  Two sides each contained four cups, one side all the cups were uncovered, and the other 3 of the 4 were covered.  Food was placed in two cups, one from each side, at the same time, forcing the scrub jay to decide which cups to view when the food was being placed.  The scrub jays spend more time watching the side with four uncovered cups, making it easy for them to get the both sets of food.  This provides support that the scrub jays could be able to think about their thought process, and in this scenerio know where they should be looking to obtain more food.

Florida Scrub Jay” By Mwanner CC BY-SA 3.0

Birds are much more intelligent than most people think, and hopefully these examples change a few viewpoints of the term ‘bird brain’.  When looking up intelligence in birds the most common result was work done with Alex the parrot, but there was so much information on his studies I decided to write a separate blog post just for him linked here!

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