Some of them are fairly dumb. Some of them are fairly smart. It really all depends on the bird and the situation. However, for years scientists looked down on the bird as a minor player in the cognition game.
In a recent study of cognition involving rooks, a type of corvid related to crows and ravens, scientists (one of whom I worked with once upon a time) succeeded in recreating one of Aesop’s fables. From the abstract:
In Aesop’s fable The Crow and the Pitcher, a thirsty crow uses stones to raise the level of water in a pitcher and quench its thirst. A number of corvids have been found to use tools in the wild [1,2,3,4], and New Caledonian crows appear to understand the functional properties of tools and solve complex physical problems via causal and analogical reasoning [5,6,7,8,9,10,11]. The rook, another member of the corvid family that does not appear to use tools in the wild, also appears able to solve non-tool-related problems via similar reasoning . Here, we present evidence that captive rooks are also able to solve a complex problem by using tools. We presented four captive rooks with a problem analogous to Aesop’s fable: raising the level of water so that a floating worm moved into reach. All four subjects solved the problem with an appreciation of precisely how many stones were needed. Three subjects also rapidly learned to use large stones over small ones, and that sawdust cannot be manipulated in the same manner as water. This behavior demonstrates a flexible ability to use tools, a finding with implications for the evolution of tool use and cognition in animals.
So, the rooks used rocks to raise the level of water in a container in order to grab a yummy worm. They learned that rocks work better than wood dust, and they figured out that different sized rocks displace different amounts of water. That’s some fairly complicated tool use, which according to scientific concensus should take a fair amount of cognitive power.
How can these birds do these amazing things? Their brains are so small!
I have a reaction more like, “how did it take so long for someone to try this test?” If our brains are so big and wonderful, allowing us so much processing prowess, why is it so hard for us to devise ways to delve into the minds of other animals (nevermind our own). To me, this is a perfect example of scientists finally finding an appropriate test with which to peer into an animal’s abilities.
Many times when an experiment isn’t working, getting it to work is a matter of changing the way the question is posed, or being creative with the experimental design. This is especially true when working with animals. In my own experience, I have been outsmarted by many a magpie and scrub jay who just didn’t want to do the experiment the way I did. Not seeing eye to eye with the birds forced me to rethink the way I was doing the experiment.
For goodness sake, for years it was thought that birds had little to no sense of smell simply because the olfactory bulb would come unattached from the rest of the brain, and get lost in the processing!
Really, the point of this is that we can never jump to conclusions about the way things work in the world because we have probably failed in some way to come up with just the right test because we haven’t looked at the problem from all perspectives.
Watch a cool video of a bird performing the task in question here.