What are the most intelligent creatures on the planet? Humans come first. (Though there are days when we have to wonder.) After Homo sapiens, most people might answer chimpanzees, and then maybe dogs and dolphins. But what of birds? The science writer Jennifer Ackerman offers a lyrical testimony to the wonders of avian intelligence in her new book, “The Genius of Birds.” There have long been hints of bird smarts, but it’s become an active field of scientific inquiry, and Ackerman serves as tour guide. She answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
What drew you to birds?
I’ve watched birds for most of my life. I admire all the usual things about them. Their plumage and song. Their intense way of living. Their flight. I also admire their resourcefulness and pluck. I’ve always been intrigued by their apparently smart behavior, whether learned or innate.
I grew up in Washington, D.C. — the second youngest in a gaggle of five girls. My parents had precious little time for one-on-one. Especially my dad, who had a demanding government job. So when he asked me if I wanted to go birdwatching with him one spring morning when I was seven or eight, I jumped at the chance. It was magical, going out in the dark woods along the C&O canal and listening for bird song. My father had learned his calls and songs in Boy Scout camp from an expert, an elderly Greek man named Apollo, so he was pretty good at identifying birds, even the shy woodland species. Eventually he gave me my own copy of Peterson’s Field Guide, along with a small pair of binoculars. I’ve loved birds ever since.
My first run in with a clever bird was on our dining room table. We had a pet parakeet, a budgerigar named Gre-Gre, who was allowed to fly around the dining room and perch on our head or shoulders. He had a kind of social genius. He made you love him. But at breakfast, it was impossible to eat your cereal without his constant harassment. He liked to perch on the edge of my bowl and peck at the cereal, flapping his wings frantically to keep his balance, splashing my milk. I’d build a barricade of boxes around my place setting, but he always found a way in, moving a box or popping over the top. He was a good problem-solver.
Years later, I began noticing stories and reports from laboratories and field studies suggesting that birds were in fact far smarter than we thought. I got interested, read up, and began interviewing the scientists studying bird brains and cognition. What these scientists are learning is truly amazing. Especially when you consider how small a bird brain is: on average, about the size of a walnut.
You write that in some ways bird intelligence comparable to primate intelligence. What do you mean by that?
Birds have a number of mental skills that match those of primates—solving problems, crafting tools, planning ahead for future events, even considering another being’s state of mind. They can do these things even though their brains are a fraction of the size of a primate’s. This is especially true of parrots and corvids, the family that includes crows, ravens, magpies, and jays.
Take the ability to recognize yourself in the mirror. We used to think this kind of self-awareness was limited to some of the great apes, as well as dolphins and elephants. But magpies can do it too. Paint a red dot on a magpie’s breast, and when it sees its reflection in the mirror, it will look down at its own breast and peck at the red spot.
Or mental time travel, the ability to remember the past and plan for the future. We thought this was our own special cognitive triumph. But it turns out that we share this ability with members of the corvid family. Like western scrub jays. These are birds that cache—they hide a variety of foods in stashes and then return to them later. The jays have a remarkable capacity to remember what they cached where, when they did it, and who was watching. That’s called episodic memory, and we once imagined it was a uniquely human skill.
Birds can reason, too, in some cases as well as a child. New Caledonian crows “get” that stones will displace water and light sticks won’t—a pretty sophisticated understanding, on par with a child five or six years old. This ability to grasp the basic physical properties of objects underlies a New Caledonian crow’s skills at making sophisticated tools, which rivals the big primate toolmakers like chimpanzees and orangutans.
In primates, sophisticated cognitive skills like these are controlled by the cerebral cortex. Birds don’t have a cortex, so it was assumed they weren’t capable of such complex mental tasks. So how do they do it? The new insights into this are truly fascinating and hint at how intelligence arises in the brain.
Can you give some examples of the social intelligence birds display?
Empathy is a big one. Ravens appear to be responsive to the emotional states of other ravens, especially mates or other allies. If one bird is the victim of a conflict, others will console it with gestures such as preening or bill twining.
Then there’s delayed gratification. This is often used as a measure of social or emotional intelligence in humans because it involves self-control, persistence, self-motivation. You remember the famous Stanford marshmallow experiments? Something like 600 young children were offered one marshmallow (or some other treat) to eat right away or two if they waited 15 minutes. Only a third of the kids delayed gratification long enough to get the second treat. Crows and ravens are masters at this kind of self-control. They’ll turn down a reward now for a better one later.
My favorite example of social intelligence occurs in Eurasian jays, relatives of our blue jays and scrub jays. These birds seem to understand the mental states of their mates. A male Eurasian jay brings food to his mate. It’s a way of courting. But here’s the cool thing: He makes choices about what he thinks she may like, based not on his own appetites but on what she has eaten before. (“She’s had too many doughnuts; I’ll bring her some fruit!” — only the food in question here is meal worms and similar goodies.) He appears to understand that she has a mind with desires that differ from his own. This is a critical component of the social intelligence called “theory of mind,” which is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, knowledge, desires—to others. And to understand that these states may differ from your own, which some consider the foundation of empathy.
These are just a few instances. There are many, many other examples of birds with surprising, mind-blowing kinds of smarts.