Who’s a clever bird, then? The rook, for one

Ornithologists dislike the use of ‘birdbrain’ as shorthand for stupid, because our feathered friends are very intelligent, says Rita de Brun. The British Trust for Ornithology has called on the British public to take part in a national survey on bird intelligence

Who’s a clever bird, then? The rook, for one

BIRDBRAIN is a mild insult that generates uneasy smiles, but it also reinforces the erroneous notion birds are less than smart.

To knock this myth on the head, the British Trust for Ornithology has called on the British public to take part in a national survey on bird intelligence; people’s task is to observe and video rooks engaged in intelligent behaviour.

This should yield interesting results.

Rooks are bright: they drop nuts on busy roads, and wait for traffic to crack them, then swoop down to collect the omega-3-rich snacks.

“Often, they drop nuts close to traffic lights,” says Dr John Quinn, an ornithologist and professor of ecology at UCC. “They do this because they’ve worked out that when the lights go red it’s safe for them to collect their tasty treats without getting run-over in the process.”

Quinn regularly sees crows dropping cockles and mussels from a height on the Inchydoney coast road, before swooping down to eat the contents from the smashed shells.

He says: “They understand the law of motion. We know this, because the height from which they drop the mollusc depends on its weight.” There is a push to debunk the outdated notion that birds are less than clever.

In 2005, an international consortium of neuroscientists gathered at Duke University, in North Carolina, to stamp out the ‘birdbrain’ nomenclature.

Their opposition to that term, according to a report in Science Daily, was that it wrongly implied that avian brains are more primitive than mammalian brains.

Who could argue?

In March of this year, New Caledonian crows were shown by University of Auckland research to be smarter than children aged 5 to 7.

What this says about the many adults who have tried and failed, on a popular television programme, to prove to Noel Edmonds that they’re smarter than a 10-year-old is best left to the imagination, or to young children who might explain it simply and kindly to them.

“It seems as though we are learning about the amazing intellectual capacities of a wide range of animals on an almost daily basis,” says Marc Bekoff, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado and author of Why Dogs Hump and Bees get Depressed. “But these ‘surprise revelations’ shouldn’t surprise us if we keep our minds open to how highly evolved the animal brain is.

“Dogs know when they play that they have to obey the agreed-upon rules of fair-play. They seem to know what their playmates are thinking and feeling.”

Fish can tell other fish where to find food by pointing to it with their heads, and prairie dogs have highly sophisticated communication systems that rival human language. Chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and magpies display self-awareness, while mice, chickens and rats display empathy. Bekoff says “the latter would rather rescue another rat in need than eat chocolate. I’m not sure that I would.” As for his opinion on the ‘birdbrain’ label, Bekoff says: “New Caledonian crows make and use more sophisticated tools than chimpanzees. So, being a so-called birdbrain isn’t really an insult at all.”

And so it shouldn’t be, especially given that their cognitive skills have long been documented.

Remember Aesop’s fables? The one in which a crow ‘half dead with thirst’ used pebbles to raise the water-level in a tall, narrow pitcher so he could get a drink? This was likely to have been written sometime between 620 and 560 BCE (that was when Aesop, a former Greek slave, is thought to have recited the hundreds of fables for which he is known). While fictional tales are rarely convincing, fables strike a chord. Today, scientists conduct a similar test to that described in The Crow and the Pitcher, and pay tribute to the great story-teller by referring to same as an Aesop’s fable paradigm.

In 2009, they used this test to prove that rooks tend to be smarter than other bird species and than many non-human primates.

That research is something for the members of the corvid bird family to ‘crow about’.

But should news of it spread among other members of the animal kingdom, it’s likely to generate indignant feather ruffling and outraged chest banging among those deemed cognitively inferior. Whether word will spread, we’ll never know, but I like to think it will — given how parrots love to talk.

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