Saturday, May 17, 2008

Smart Birds

From a profile of bird researcher Irene Pepperberg in The New Yorker, fascinating insights into bird intelligence:

One important set of studies centers on the clever corvid family of birds, which includes crows, ravens, jays, and magpies. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that crows or ravens often appear as cunning tricksters and problem-solvers in Native American legends and Aesop’s fables.) A 1998 study suggested that these birds have a surprising capacity for “episodic-like memory.” Scrub jays hide food and retrieve it later, and in the study the birds were allowed to cache two kinds of food: peanuts and wax-moth larvae, which they much prefer (though only when the larvae are fresh). Some of the jays were then sent to their cages for four hours, and some for five days, after which they were given access to their stashes. The birds that were released first went for the larvae, while the ones let out later settled for the peanuts, apparently having remembered not only when and where they had hidden their food but how long it took for the larvae to go bad. Further studies noted that, if a scrub jay realized that it was being spied on by another jay as it cached its food, it was more likely to come back later and hide the goodies elsewhere. Moreover, jays that had previously stolen from another’s stash were more prone to move their food to a different hiding place. (It takes a thief to know one, apparently.) Such behavior suggests that jays not only have a Machiavellian streak; they also possess a “theory of mind,” and can guess, to some degree, what other birds are thinking. The husband-and-wife team of Nicola Clayton and Nathan Emery, who are largely responsible for this work, argue that it shows some birds have “the same cognitive tool kit” that apes have: “causal reasoning, flexibility, imagination, and prospection.” They believe that evolution created multiple paths to intelligence—and that “complex cognitive abilities had evolved multiple times in distantly related species.”
I can vouch for the cleverness of this corvid family, bearing frequent witness to their antics as represented by western scrub jays (pictured), Stellar's jays, crows, and, from my days in Oklahoma, blue jays. If there's a bird doing mischief near a back yard bird feeder in North America, rather than just skittering around, it's probably a corvid.

It's interesting to speculate on whether ever-increasing human encroachment creates selective pressures that, over time, will increase the capabilities of the "cognitive tool kit" behind the mischief. And if so, should we start planning to hail our avian overlords?

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