Bird Brained

May 10, 2010

Torah Kachur

Aesop was a pretty clever dude. He wrote a whole bunch of fables to teach people lessons using metaphors – slow and steady wins the race, don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched, little by little does the trick. Life’s lessons, taught by birds and bunnies.

What in the sam-hell does that have to do with science?

        Torah Kachur Science in Seconds Crow intelligence tool use aesop fables

The gem of advice of “little by little does the trick” comes from The Pitcher and the Crow, where the crow drops rocks into the pitcher to raise the water so that he can reach it.  The use of tools by crows has been observed in the wild – from bending hooks to fish out insects from trees, to the fabled pebbles to raise water levels. And new research from the University of Auckland adds even more complexity. The crows were given some meat that was not easily reached. In order to actually retrieve the food, the crows had to untie a stick that was suspended by a string from a perch, then use that small stick to fish out a larger stick deep in a hole, and only then could the crow reach the meat to pull it out.

I’m not sure why anyone is truly surprised by this research. Intelligence in a bird? Yes, of course, why not? What is impressive though, is the speed that these crows solved the problems. Without ever having seen the situation before a few smarty-pants didn’t even hesitate to start the solution. This is not trial and error and this is not a simple task. These birds are intelligent and can use tools to perform complex and sequential tasks. The search for other ‘intelligent’ life should maybe first start on our own planet.

May I suggest we rethink the saying ‘bird-brain’?



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