Why I want a bird brain!

Owl on a surfboard vegan t shirt

The southern owl might be tiny at just 23 cm
but still loves to ride the waves.

Today we take a look at why it might be ok to be a bird brain and if so which bird to choose. 

Background to bird intelligence

Studies have long focussed on the comparative intelligence of primates and humans, but until recently very little was known about bird intelligence.  A recent study has suggested that although we mammals split from our bird friends, on the evolutionary tree some 300 million years ago, their brains have developed advanced intelligence. Previously it was thought that as they had evolved brain structures differently, they could not be as intelligent as mammals. This study found that crows were as intelligent in certain tasks as primates. 

"Mammalian brains are like IBM-PCs, whereas avian brains are like Apple Macintoshes; the wiring and processing are different, but the resulting output (i.e. behaviour) is similar"

Taken from Cognitive ornithology.

Three crows by a tree in a saltmarsh,Original Watercolour Wall Art

Three crows by a tree in a saltmarsh,
Original Watercolour Wall Art

Plan for the future?

Well it has been proven that they can plan for the future. Not just randomly store away food like a squirrel. In one study crows picked out a token rather than take a small piece of food as they knew that the token provided better food. Can you do that when see one piece of chocolate in front of you and wait knowing you could have a lot of cake instead?

How intelligent are they?

Well as this study suggests its not easy to isolate intelligence from what benefits an animal in its particular niche. Effectively many of the traits we originally thought were just human have been evolved in other animals. When similar traits evolve from distantly related species this is known as convergent evolution (remember we split from birds 300 million years ago).

Use tools

In this video the crow must use one tool to grab another tool. Then using the new tool fetches a reward. This shows not only that they can use tools but have the intelligence to realise they need to make multiple steps to gain a reward.

Are they all clever?

Well parrots and crows definitely seem to be the brightest. It's suggested that their ability to adapt to a harsh environment and to live in a complex social group has aided intelligence development. In this paper at certain tasks they rank: 

“The corvid outperforms the parrot, which outperforms the quail, which outperforms the chicken.”

In conclusion birds are clever and to be called a bird brain is certainly not an insult.  Perhaps as is quoted below pur search for intelligence and what ranks for intelligence should be much wider.

“Being able to fly to Argentina, come back, and land in the same bush—we don’t value that intelligence in a lot of other organisms,” says Kevin McGowan, an expert on crows at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. “We’ve restricted the playing field to things we think only we can do.”

Taken from Why Ravens and Crows Are Earth’s Smartest Birds.

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