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How Smart Are Birds?

by Kirsten Sanford, Aug 07 2009

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 [12]. 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.

22 Responses to “How Smart Are Birds?”

  1. Eddy says:

    If birds indeed evolved from dinosaurs then they evolved from species that had much bigger brains.
    The brains, like the rest of the body, needed to be lighter in order to be able to fly.

    Our own brains have not gone through a phase where it’s capabilities needed to be compacted. It’s structure might therefore be less efficient.

    (These) animals are perfectly capable of surviving on their own. Not many humans can do that. The fact that some of us can use tools and can reason is in no way a statement that everyone of us can. Why do we feel so superior?

  2. Joe says:

    I dont think this is very new, im sure ive seen videos of birds doing other fabulous things before. Also in your quote it seems more like they didnt find out that rocks work better than sawdust, it was that rocks dont work getting a worm out of a tube filled with sawdust like thay do with a tube filled with water.

  3. Max says:

    Crows may be smart, but a fox can get a crow to drop a piece of cheese by flattering it.

  4. Susan B. says:

    Re #3: I’d love to see that experiment!

    On the videos it seems like there’s no hesitation when the birds are presented with the puzzle. They get a chance to check out the tube of water, but as soon as the rocks are added to the cage, they know what to do. I’m curious whether these videos represent the first time these birds have been presented with this particular challenge, or if they’ve seen it before.

    Also interesting that in each case, after the bird added each rock, it checked whether it could reach the worm. Clearly the birds never added more rocks than necessary, but I wonder if they could learn to judge when the water level was obviously still too low without actually checking it.

  5. Skepdude says:

    “Some of them are fairly dumb. Some of them are fairly smart.”

    Unfortunately that applies equally well to the human species, I think.

  6. Brian M says:

    “They learned that rocks work better than wood dust…”

    I don’t think that is quite what the excerpt was saying. From my reading, it says they could not drop rocks into wood dust to displace it, making the level higher.

    In any case, there are loads of experiments that show birds are smart. There is a video online of a bird bending a hook to pull out a worm from a tube. There are also wild birds in the UK (I believe) that drop nuts into traffic on cross walks, so that cars run over the nuts, breaking them open. Then they wait for people to press the cross walk button so they can retrieve their prize.

    None the less, this experiment is still quite fascinating. I guess this “blessed species” isn’t quite so special after all. ;)

  7. Robert says:

    “They learned that rocks work better than wood dust”

    No, they learned that the level of wood dust can’t be raised by dropping rocks into (onto) it. From the quote: “[they learned] that sawdust cannot be manipulated in the same manner as water”.

  8. Iason Ouabache says:

    Not seeing eye to eye with the birds forced me to rethink the way I was doing the experiment.

    Must resist temptation to post LOLPELICAN.

  9. Kirsten Sanford says:

    Sorry peeps! I mis-typed that detail. My bad. Next time I hire an editor.

    Related thought though, why is it that so many feel the need to repeatedly comment on that one tidbit as opposed to pondering the larger point I was trying to make? One comment noting the error is enough.

    Most likely it’s a matter of attention. Once one’s attention is focused on the error, there may be no more room for processing other details.

    Maybe this is worthy of a scientific study… I’ll have to figure out how to go about testing you lot though…

  10. Kirsten Sanford says:

    To #2 Joe, and #7, Brian M., while you are right that there is lots of video out there of birds doing amazing things, much of it is not part of a scientific, rigorously designed study. Anecdote, as of yet, is not enough to base conclusions. The birds, instead of being smart, could simply have chanced upon an action that they employ randomly rather than with intention. The few studies that are out there asking birds to solve problems using tools, like this one, make the conclusion of flexible cognition easier to swallow. That said, I do love to assign anthropomorphic explanations to the behaviors of these amazing creatures.

    To #4 Susan B., I’m sure these videos were made after many, many hours of training. Knowing how these birds work, they probably didn’t get it right on the first go, but learned through trial-and-error. So, it looks easy in the video, but you don’t get to see the investigator pulling his hair out in the previous months. Also, I noticed the same thing about the bird checking the water level after each rock. I think that is an interesting question that deserves further study.

    To #8, Iason Ouabache, I think you just did post it…

    • Max says:

      Why was the investigator pulling his hair out? Because the bird didn’t do what he wanted it to do?

  11. Cool youtube video, Kristen.

    I recently came across this article in Audubon Magazine about direction shifts in massive flocks of birds: .

    My favorite segment from the article:

    “Like drivers on a freeway, starlings don’t appear to mind having neighbors nearby on their sides—or above and below, for that matter—as long as they have open space ahead. That makes sense, since the presence of a clear path in the direction of travel minimizes the likelihood of collisions should the birds need to shift their course abruptly, as is likely when a falcon attacks. But what’s really nifty about this spatial asymmetry is that the researchers have been able to use it to calculate the number of neighbors to which each starling pays close attention—a quantified elaboration of Potts’s chorus line idea. By looking at correlations between the movements of neighboring starlings, they can show that each bird always pays attention to the same number of neighbors, whether they’re closer or farther away. How many neighbors is that? Six or seven, says Cavagna, who points out that starlings in flocks can almost always see many more nearby birds—but the number may be closely tied to birds’ cognitive ability.”

    The direction of the flock can be coordinated by each birds’ tracking six or seven other birds. Remarkable. This is a very different kind of cognitive skill.

    I primarily blog about structural health in the human body. I stumbled across a new documentary on health, “The Living Matrix” ( and decided to post a review. This movie was released directly to DVD. This documentary claims to show the link between our health/healing and quantum physics, imitating both the style and the content of earlier documentaries “The Secret” and “What the Bleep Do We Know?”. In my opinion, it categorically fails to show any link between the two. My review of the film is here:

    I was searching literature about direction changes in flocks because of a dubious claim that Dietmar Cimbal, DVM, (labeled as a “biophysics researcher” in the film) makes about birds in TLM. This is a quote of the translation of Mr. Cimbal’s words from the movie:

    “Every one of us has watched a flock of birds in flight and how it changes direction. Instantly, all birds in the flock change direction. So, it seems as if a superior bird-brain controls all the birds simultaneously. That only works with the help of those fields, since the fields are able to transfer, with no information loss, and, above all, instantaneously with no time delay.”

    [The "fields" are not defined in this quote, but the entire movie is about a quantum physics "body field", apparently based on journalist Lynne McTaggart's book "The Field".]

    I knew that high-speed photography had probably resolved the question of coordination in flocks; I was able to find the Audubon reference in about two minutes of searching.

    I’m astonished that a researcher would make this “superior bird brain” quote. I have no idea how the producers of the film could have thought of including this particular quote in the film. It seems pretty clear they didn’t go through any fact-checking on Mr. Cimbal’s claims. Did they do any fact-checking?

    I plan to do a second blog entry about this issue of flock shifts. I’d also love to get any recommendations from this community on how to dispel the pseudoscience in this documentary. If anyone has any recommendations, please contact phil @ my website domain name.

    The irony of the failure of this film is that there is indeed much excellent science happening in alternative/nontraditional medicine. I primarily follow the growing body or research into fascia, but that is one of many areas.

  12. oldebabe says:

    Birds are probably just as `smart’ as they need to be. They may not have the same `smarts’ as other species, and obviously some birds will appear (to humans) to be smarter and/or dumber, but that does depend on, as you say, the guage one is using to do the measurement.

    In my personal observation of flights of Canada geese, I can’t but notice that they do not all move instantly in the same direction (“shifts”) over any period of time, i.e. gaggles are notoriously continuously wavy… tho I believe there is a `shifting’ leader, if that counts…

  13. The Times picked up this story and published it on Friday: . has a link to the Times story today.

    The Times reporter didn’t quite get it: “The birds were extremely accurate, using the exact number of stones needed to raise the worm to a height where they could reach it.”

  14. Dr. T says:

    “However, for years scientists looked down on the bird as a minor player in the cognition game.”

    Please do some fact-checking before making such a bold statement. Scientists have avidly studied pigeon intelligence for decades. Some of the earliest animal cognition studies used pigeons. Scientists were fascinated by homing pigeons and their amazing ability to return after being transported hundreds of miles from home. Scientists also study the general intelligence of pigeons. Last year Japanese scientists made the controversial claim that pigeons have approximately the same intelligence as three-year-old children. The scientists found that pigeons could recognize self-images (photos or reflections of themselves). In an earlier study, they trained pigeons to distinguish between Picasso and Monet paintings (not exactly tough, but pretty good for a bird). Other studies showed that pigeons could remember over 300 images and associate each image with one of four “keys.” They still remembered 160 image-key associations after two years.

    Birds definitely are not minor players in cognition studies.

  15. Dr. T says:

    “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!”

    Please provide a source. I’m a pathologist, and we’ve known for over a century that the olfactory tracts and bulbs break off during brain removals unless special techniques are used. I’m certain that our colleages performing xenopsies (animal necropsies) knew this, too. Perhaps an idiotic zoologist or two made such a “bird-brained” claim, but any careful dissection of a bird’s head shows that it has all the requirements for a decent sense of smell.

  16. Paul says:

    I wonder if the similarity to Aesop’s fable has more to do with the bird or the experimenters. I know little of the details of the experiment but I can easily imagine the experimenters setting out to confirm the fable. This may involve some bird training before making the video. The ability for a bird to learn such training is an accomplishment in itself. But do these experimenters assert that this is a first-time experience for the bird? This is something I would like to see verified.

  17. Peter says:

    Don’t know about rooks; the smartest animals, as everyone knows by now, are white mice. Further down the list come dolphins, then man. The fourth smartest is the kea. If you’d ever met a kea, you wouldn’t be at all surprised that it could figure out this trick without training (and when it did, it would even teach it to others!). (And I suspect the fifth smartest is not an animal at all, but a bowl of petunias)

  18. kevin mike says:

    The kea’s elongated bill is perfect for biting, tearing, and lifting a variety of prey and objects, even prying ruber parts from cars, a behaviour that has gien it a reputation as a vandal.

  19. Jeshua says:

    A little off the topic, but it seems that degree of “intelligence” depends on your point of view. As the person above said, birds are as smart as they need to be. One series of experiments with Bonobos showed that they were better at remembering where numbers appeared on a screen than humans. It seems for some reason, Bonobos are smarter than us in some areas!!

  20. Lucian says:

    I always knew it! Those birds are purposefully shitting on my car! We were warned in Jurassic Park how “clever” the raptors were. Thanks for the interesting post. BTW, you totally deserve the sexiest scientist or whatever it was that you won, Kristen;)

  21. Daun Eierdam says:

    How do we know the bird wasn’t trained to do the trick before the video was shot?