Spotlight on Behavior – Bird Intelligence

“Birdbrain” – now, that is certainly a misnomer – consider it a rich compliment! David Sibley writes that “a bird’s experience is far richer, more complex, and more ‘thoughtful’ than I’d imagined”. Birds are making decisions all the time: planning, remembering, and solving problems that indicate a wide range of smart behaviors. Studies suggest that birds can perform many complex behaviors because their forebrains contain a lot more neurons than previously thought. We are familiar with, and in awe of, brilliant adaptations through evolution. Thanks to the observations of scientists and birders alike, here are some fascinating and certainly intelligent behaviors.

  • Nest building: multiple decisions go into the approach, timing, location, technique, and materials depending on local conditions, changes in climate, and circumstances in their lives as well as other species.
  • Birds are clever, curious, playful, and innovative. Crows are known to place nuts on roadways waiting for cars to crush them. Chickadees can store up to 1000 seeds in a day for later use and not only remember each location but the individual quality of that seed. They are harbingers of danger-producing mixed-species flocks. Titmice exhibit multi-faceted decision-making at feeders balancing benefits with costs. Jays know the “intentions” of other jays.
  • Communication through sight, sound, movements, postures, flight, cooperation with others for safety, breeding efforts, territory, and food sources. But what about feelings? Do birds feel love, fear, pride, joy, sadness, and anger? Are they sneaky? Does instinct motivate feelings? Spend some time in the field observing birds and you might conclude there is a lot more going on that meets the eye.

Lately, scientists have taken a new look at behaviors they have run past for years and dismissed as anomalies or set aside as abiding mysteries. What they have found is upending traditional views of how and why they communicate, court, forage, and survive and the remarkable strategies and intelligence underlying these activities. Abilities we once considered unique to us, the sole domain of clever mammals.

Cool fact: a high-tech instance of bird ingenuity is western gulls with geolocators traveling 60 mph for 75 miles before returning the same route to their nests. Turns out they were hitching a ride on garbage trucks bound for an organic composting facility.

By; Lisas Grubbs, NAAS Member