Bird Smarts

Bird Smarts

7/1/12 Note: For Redlands area residents, adaptations of my columns will appear each Monday in the Redlands Daily Facts e-edition 

There are so many stories out there about bird intelligence but I thought I would share a few things I’ve read or experienced that illustrate the intelligence of our bird brethren.

My earlier post Bird Brain – a Myth discussed how research is showing the more primitive brain structure in birds has many similarities to the cortex of the human and mammal. Here are a few other items I’ve come across on bird intelligence:

  • Ravens and Wolves – Mutualistic Relationship University of Vermont researcher Bernd Heinrich studies the close relationship between ravens and wolves (wolf packs are nearly always accompanied by ravens, who compete for the kill). He had noted in his Yellowstone studies that ravens locate injured elk and then call raucously, which attracts the attention of local wolf packs. Ravens take a lot of meat from the wolves, eating up to four pounds of moose meat per day.
  • Caruso scritching with an almond

    Parrots You’ve likely heard of Alex (see PBS clip), who researcher Dr. Irene Pepperberg bought from a pet store and who in 2002 died

    Dusty using a feather tip to scratch himself last week

    suddenly  at age 31. He learned more than 100 words, identified 50 different objects and had made up words such as calling an almond a ‘cork nut.’ I attended a Pepperberg talk a few years ago and she was clearly devastated at losing both a friend and  the mainstay of her research. She was continuing work with several other African Greys but none had the personalities to yet demonstrate similar communication skills.

    We’ve got parrots – so yes, I could be a bit biased on this subject, but I also expect some intelligent communication from them. Occasionally they do impress me. A couple examples:  Dusty, our African, who as a ‘problem child’ had three previous homes, occasionally says something only one time — but appropriately. Like the afternoon I was outside gardening with him so he could get a little sunshine,and I moved a little too far away. His calls of “right here!” and “are you alright?” quickly reunited us. Also, our amazon, whose cage is next to Dusty’s, eats with a spoon and uses items to scratch himself. A few months ago I saw Dusty using a piece to wood to do the scratching I don’t always have time to do.

  • Crows using stones to raise water levels – There are many stories of crow intelligence. This one has ties to the ancient writer Aesop, whose fable “The Crow and The Pitcher” told of a thirsty crow dropping stones in a half-full pitcher of water to raise the water level. Zoologist David Bird – isn’t that appropriate – of University of Cambridge recently tested 4 birds who dropped stones in a glass beaker to retrieve a floating wax worm – 2 got it the first try, the other 2 the 2nd. And one stopped participating after it ate a wax worm and got sick.

There are many more out there – feel free to share any you’ve read or witnessed…..

About Linda Richards

My goal is to educate about the science of nature in layperson speak, through my writing, science and education background. I grew up in the Chicago area, loved living in Minneapolis before gravitating to the West, which is now home.


  1. Jean McDaniel says:

    I have three pet geese who were being harassed by my neighbors pit bull. I had enough one day and took the dog in my house and called animal control. The neighbor was angry with me and insisted that animal control site me for having illegal geese. I went to court four times over a period of six months and won in the end. Several days after the judge ruled that I could keep my pet geese, one of my neighbors called to tell me that a goose was loose. I went out and found my goose in front of the pit bull’s house honking . It was as if he were saying NAH NAH NAH! He had never done this before and he has never done it again.

  2. R. Seaton says:

    Hi! Linda,
    My question–what are your thoughts about some species of butterflies responding to
    human wishes? Coming to a hand on invitation for example!

    • Linda Richards says:

      I do think many species have good smellers and can smell fear, so the opposite could be true. Who knows… Have heard they like the salts and other electrolytes on skin (and mud!) so might be more that… thanks for writing….

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