Is Being Bird-Brained Really an Insult?

Are birds more intelligent than we give them credit for?

Writer: Sharif Khalid
Editor: Anita Allikmets
Artist: Alia Mustafa Kamal

Introduction

If you call someone a bird brain, they are likely to be offended. Birds, such as pigeons and chickens, are often thought of as dim in popular culture. However, should a class that has inhabited every continent and occupied a wide variety of niches be thought of as simple and mindless? This article explores various examples that demonstrate that birds are more intelligent than often believed, proving that intelligence is widespread amongst birds and not limited to corvids and parrots.

Social Intelligence

Complex social structure necessitates a high level of intelligence because social interactions require higher levels of communication and development of roles. Social cognition is a unique trait amongst limited numbers of vertebrate species, as brain tissue is metabolically expensive. Corvids and parrots are amongst bird families known to possess high levels of social intelligence.

Other birds exhibit complex social structures as well, including domestic chickens. Chickens are seen to have unique personalities within their groups which leads to a social hierarchy.  Evidence shows that chickens remember distinct individuals within their group (provided they were exposed to them enough), understanding where individuals lay within the hierarchy. They were also able to be in multiple groups, having a different status in each. Chickens use a wide range of visual and chemical cues to establish hierarchy, including physical features and stances. This hierarchy influences sexual behaviour, to the extent that males can become “psychologically castrated” by other males, refusing to mate with hens even after the removal of the dominant males.

Numeracy

While mathematical ability is seen as a uniquely human trait, aspects of basic numeracy are also seen in birds. For example, pigeons can count in order to receive food. The pigeons are able to correctly match up relevant numbers to the correct visual stimuli, as well as perform simple algebraic skills such as subtraction. Pigeons are also able to sort numbers ordinally, a trait previously thought to be unique to primates.

Recent studies suggest that crows are familiar with and can use the concept of zero – a concept which was only recently discovered in human history. Crows were observed to discriminate between empty and numerical sets, thus conceptualising zero. Particular neuron sets also fire when conceptualising the empty set, further showing abstract visualisation of zero. Crows understood the concept of a null set far before humans defined zero.

Tool Use

Tool use is another indication of intelligence. Woodpecker finches for example have been known to utilise different tools to hunt various prey. They used cactus spines and twigs to access food in hard-to-reach areas, increasing their feeding range to encompass more nutritional prey, such as spiders. This allowed them to remain in arid environments in the dry season by exploiting a wider range of resources. When presented with novel challenges, these finches were able to adapt their available tools to solve tasks, in ways that were analogous to those studied in primates.

Other forms of tool use are also seen in food acquisition such as the use of items to bait prey. For example, burrowing owls spread dung around their burrows in order to entice dung beetles, a source of food. This behaviour is not coincidental, since the owls replaced dung if it was removed and remained at a spot until prey arrived. Similarly, many species of heron use bait to attract fish. Black herons often make bait out of bread to catch fish. Bait fishing is seen to be a distinctive behaviour that herons learn and adapt.

Conclusion

Birds demonstrate markers of intelligence. Things that we take for granted, such as numeracy and tool use, are not common within the animal kingdom, yet birds seem to utilise these skills to become successful in their ecology. There is much more to be learned about these remarkable animals, which may also help us understand the origins and capabilities of human intelligence.

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