For the Birds Radio Program: Bird tools

Original Air Date: Feb. 18, 1994

What does Tonya Harding have to do with birds? (3:45) Date originally aired.

Audio missing


One of the ways that human beings fuel our fragile egos is by feeling superior to others. No matter how low we feel, it’s somehow okay as long as we can convince ourselves that someone else is even lower. People can derive smug satisfaction from their race, their sex, their classy car, their taste in music, their SAT scores. If your favorite politician is under indictment, at least someone else’s has already been convicted. If your favorite baseball team loses the Series, at least they won the pennant. If your team didn’t even make the playoffs, well, at least they’re not the Chicago Cubs. Of course, even if we Cubs fans can’t find any people to feel superior to, at least we’re better than birds. Right?

Well, okay, so a bird’s vision and hearing are better than ours, its cardiovascular and respiratory systems are more efficient. So what if any Winter Wren can out-sing Beverly Sills, any crow can outshout even the more ardent Cubs fan. So what if birds never need frequent flier mileage to fly free? At least we’re smarter than them, right? The human brain is clearly superior. That’s why it can focus such intense concentration on deep issues of the day, like the Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan case. When it comes right down to it, a bird can’t even pick up an iron pipe in the first place.

The human use of furniture and tools is actually one of the pieces of evidence that scientists use to prove our superiority over animals. But birds are rather accomplished furniture builders in their own right. They were fashioning intricate baby cradles long before humans figured out weaving or carpentry. Birds may not be able to wield a chisel or hammer or knife or fork, but they have a pretty fine Swiss Army knife built right into their face in the form of their beak. Ducks use their beak for a strainer, grosbeaks for a nutcracker.

And some birds have made the transition from built-in tools to the kinds of tools they find in their environment. The Galapagos Woodpecker Finch probes into cavities of dead wood with a sharp twig or cactus spine to pry out insects. Many birds use rocks to break mussels, crabs, and nuts open. Of course, birds aren’t quite strong enough to lift a rock, so they do the process in reverse, dropping the food item on the rock. The Lammergeier, an African vulture, has been called “the bone breaker” since antiquity for its habit of dropping bones to get at the marrow. And eagles often crack open tortoises by dropping them on rocks. Pliny said that after an oracle warned the Greek poet Aeschylus that he would be killed by the fall of a house, Aeschylus stayed outdoors all day long. Unfortunately, those pesky oracles often play word triks, And Aeschylus never realized the oracle was talking about the house of a reptile. He met his death when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it. A bird’s soft skull would be worthless for cracking open shells, so here we finally have incontrovertible proof that the human noggin is better than a bird’s at something.