Column: Redefining “birdbrain”

Christie Greene
Posted 12/20/22

In 1963, Jane Goodall stated, “In modifying a natural object to make it suitable for a specific purpose — the chimpanzee has reached the first crude beginnings of tool making.”

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Column: Redefining “birdbrain”


In 1963, Jane Goodall stated, “In modifying a natural object to make it suitable for a specific purpose — the chimpanzee has reached the first crude beginnings of tool making.” Her discovery of chimpanzees fashioning termite fishing poles from sticks changed the way scientists thought of humankind’s superiority. Weren’t only humans capable of crafting tools?

Move over, primates! Despite the lack of fingers, certain songbird species have demonstrated the ability to create tools and solve complex problems, in some instances surpassing the capabilities of apes and young children.

The family of Corvidae, which include ravens, crows, magpies and jays has demonstrated superior analytical abilities, deep emotional capabilities, engagement in play and trickery and remarkable language skills.

Researchers recorded more than 64,000 raven vocalizations from 37 raven pairs. According to crow musicologist Eleanor Brown, each family of crows has its own vocabulary of sounds, some which they share with other groups but many are distinct. By comparison, an average 3-year old child’s vocabulary consists of 1,000 words.

Corvids use their ability to mimic sounds and conduct pranks seemingly for their own amusement. 

In one instance, a zookeeper reported that magpies would visit the zoo and mimic the voice of an employee who fed the chickens. The chickens would rush to the eat the food, and though the magpies repeated the trick many times, the hapless chickens never figured out the prank.

Reportedly, the ravens at the Tower of London will squawk “keep the path!” to tourists, and in Evergreen, Steller’s jays have been observed mimicking red-tailed hawks, perhaps to ruffle the feathers of their avian neighbors?

Laboratory and field studies of crows’ analytical abilities continue to impress researchers. The biggest problem-solving incentive for the birds involves food rewards.

In Japan, crows were observed picking walnuts from nearby trees and then dropping them in front of cars while traffic lights were red. When the lights turn green, the nuts were cracked as the carsdrove over them. During the next red-light cycle, the crows would fly down to retrieve their food, joining pedestrians in the crosswalk.  

At Oxford University, researchers established a captive colony of New Caledonian crows. In one experiment, a crow named Abel flew off with a hooked wire, the only tool in the room that was designed to allow access to food, leaving his friend Betty with only straight wires. In a flash, Betty picked up a straight wire, stuck one end of the wire under a piece of tape at the base of the experiment apparatus and using her bill and body weight, she pulled the wireand bent it into a hook. Triumphantly, Betty negotiated the remaining challenges and successfully retrieved her food reward after completing an eight-step process.

At a nature preserve in Australia, camera footage recorded crows consuming ticks from the necks and ears of wallabies drinking from a water tank. The birds positioned themselves along the rim of the tank, took aim, and with sudden stabbing motion, extracted engorged ticks the size of grapes from the ears and neck of the suffering wallabies. 

The results are in: corvids are just plain smart. Their brain size in relation to body mass is equal to that of great apes and dolphins. The hawk-sized raven has the largest brain to body size ratio in the corvid family.

Part of a short but growing list of species able pass the mirror test, European magpies successfully demonstrated self-awareness, a feat only performed by some primates, dolphins and one species of fish.

The next time someone calls you a birdbrain, be sure to say thanks!

corvids, birds, foothills, wildlife


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