For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Brains

Original Air Date: Nov. 6, 1987

Birds are much smarter than most people give them credit for—well, most of the time. (3:53) Date verified.

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The Truth About Bird Brains

(Recording of a Common Raven)

Last week I mentioned on one program that crows and ravens can count at least to 6. A couple of listeners asked me how on earth ornithologists figured that out? Well, there’ve been a lot of different experiments about counting in birds, but my favorite one, back in 1956, involved a jackdaw, a close relative of the raven. The eminent ornithologist Joel Carl Welty described it like this: “It had been trained to open the lids of eight bait boxes standing in a row until it had secured five baits. In this particular trial the baits were distributed in the first five boxes in the order of 1, 2, 1, 0, 1, 0, 0, 0 baits. The jackdaw raised the lids of the first three boxes and thus secured four baits, and then returned to its home cage. The investigator was about to record a failure for the bird on this trial, when the bird returned to the boxes and went through an astonishing performance. As it walked along the row of boxes it stopped at the first box, where it had taken one bait, and bowed its head once; it stopped and bowed twice at the second box, where it had taken two baits, and similarly made one bow at the third box, where it had taken one bait. Then it proceeded down the row, opening the fourth box, which had no bait, and finally reached the fifth box where it removed the final bait. Then it ignored the remaining three boxes and returned to its cage. The bowing movements in retrospect seem to give evidence of a number concept as clearly as do the lip movements of a child counting silently.”

There are many other cases of birds showing intelligence belying their reputations for “bird brains”–like the merlins– small falcons–that learned to follow slow-moving trains to catch the small birds scared up. Back in 1921, English titmice, close relatives of our own Black-capped Chickadees, learned how to strip the caps off milk bottles left on doorsteps to sip up the cream. Within 30 years, at least 10 other species had learned this trick from the titmice.

But the smartest birds are parrots and members of the crow and jay family. These birds often play, one highly regarded sign of intelligence. I once raised a Blue Jay that learned to retrieve objects I tossed into the air for fun, not a reward. Icarus, the wounded crow I’m taking care of, already knows the layout of my house, and can easily make it from the kitchen to his perch in the living room if the sun is shining. If I go to the refrigerator where his medicine is kept, he hurries down to the basement in a humanly childish effort to avoid the inevitable.

Of course, not all birds are that smart. One pigeon maintained a pecking response for food even though it was only rewarded every 875 pecks–B.F. Skinner thought that was evidence of this bird’s remarkable memory, but I think as good an argument could be made that any bird who pecks 875 times for a single piece of food is pretty stupid. Morning Edition’s own Shaun Keenan Gilson tells the story of one pigeon that was so focused on a piece of popcorn in the middle of a busy road that it was flattened by a very slow-moving city bus–pigeons may be incredible navigators, but some of them are still not very bright.

(Recording of a Pigeon) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”