go! - - Parting Shots -


How smart are birds, re­ally? Ev­ery­one knows that a bird’s brain is the size of a peanut. Surely com­plex things like maths, speech, mem­ory and fa­cial recog­ni­tion are above their IQ level? Per­haps a more fun­da­men­tal ques­tion is this: How do we mea­sure in­tel­li­gence? A war­bler nav­i­gat­ing the planet to ar­rive at the same bush every year in Siberia and South Africa, re­spec­tively; the split-sec­ond de­ci­sions made by a fal­con fly­ing at 350 km/h; com­pos­ing, sing­ing and in­ter­pret­ing a song of thou­sands of notes… Surely in­cred­i­ble tal­ents like these should count for some­thing. Hu­mans can­not ac­com­plish these feats! But even in hu­man-bi­ased in­tel­li­gence tests in­volv­ing lab coats, brain scans and data anal­y­sis, there’s one group of birds that out­smarts all the oth­ers: corvids, like crows and ravens. In 1960, when Jane Goodall ob­served a chim­panzee us­ing a tool, our un­der­stand­ing of an­i­mals’ in­tel­li­gence at that point was chal­lenged. But putting a stick in a ter­mite nest… Come on! You should see the in­tri­cate tools that crows fash­ion out of leaves and sticks. They have var­i­ous tools for re­triev­ing dif­fer­ent prey items from dif­fer­ent hidey-holes: hooks, lev­er­ing sticks and even saw­toothed probes. What’s more, they care­fully guard their tools and hide them af­ter use. Af­ter all, they did spend a lot of time mak­ing them. When they’re us­ing their tools up in the tree canopy, crows are ex­tra care­ful not to drop them. Sci­en­tists are dis­cov­er­ing that tool use is not the only tal­ent that these brainy birds possess. Crows can plan, an­a­lyse, re­mem­ber, barter, mimic and learn. In fact, in some tests of logic and cause-and-ef­fect, crows score higher than five-yearold chil­dren! One such test in­volves drop­ping stones into a wa­ter-filled tube to raise the wa­ter level un­til food be­comes reach­able. An­other chal­lenge in which the crows beat the kids in­volved de­layed grat­i­fi­ca­tion – an avian ver­sion of the well-known “one marshmallow now or two later” test. Neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gists be­lieve that the pri­mary se­lec­tive pres­sure for in­tel­lec­tual de­vel­op­ment does not stem from sur­vival, or find­ing food, but from so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. It all starts in child­hood. Young crows are very play­ful. If you have kids, you’ll recog­nise some of the birds’ favourite games: fol­lowthe-leader, king-of-the-cas­tle and hot-potato. If you have boys, you’ll also un­der­stand their ob­ses­sive fas­ci­na­tion with sticks. As crows ma­ture, so do their re­la­tion­ships. Be­sides the male-fe­male bond, they also al­lo­cate a lot of time and ef­fort to form­ing, break­ing and even ma­nip­u­lat­ing re­la­tion­ships in wider cir­cles: ex­tended fam­ily, friends, ac­quain­tances and en­e­mies. They build al­liances and sway loy­al­ties. An­other crit­i­cal mea­sure of in­tel­li­gence is their self-aware­ness, and their abil­ity to think from an­other’s per­spec­tive. One of their tricks is to hide food for later, but if they see a peer they deem un­trust­wor­thy, they’ll re­trieve their hid­den snacks and hide them some­where else. How­ever, this para­noia only kicks in af­ter they them­selves have stolen food from a mate. And here’s some­thing truly heart-rend­ing: When a com­pan­ion dies, the sur­viv­ing crows at­tend what can only be de­scribed as a fu­neral. They stand next to the de­ceased in re­spect­ful si­lence for some time, and even lay pieces of grass next to the body – just like we would put flow­ers by a grave. Be­cause of all this, it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that crows are adapt­ing to our mod­i­fied world bet­ter than other birds. City-slicker crows will drop hard nuts in the road for cars to crush, then wait for the green traf­fic light to re­trieve the spoils. They’re ca­pa­ble of recog­nis­ing in­di­vid­ual peo­ple and some­times even cul­ti­vate part­ner­ships with bipedal col­lab­o­ra­tors. A girl in Seat­tle has a whole col­lec­tion of “gifts” like but­tons, plas­tic, jew­ellery and coins, which the neigh­bour­hood crows have brought to her to thank her for pro­vid­ing them with food. Each time a crow leaves her one of these gifts, it waits for her to find it, ap­par­ently to watch (and en­joy) her joy­ous re­ac­tion. So now you know. That peanut­sized brain, which in­ci­den­tally, is crammed with neu­rons at a much higher den­sity than in mam­mals, packs a punch. If some­one ever calls you a bird­brain, the ap­pro­pri­ate response is, “Thank you.”


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