Are birds so intelligent?

I have some friends and acquittances who are interested in birds. They have bird books and good quality binoculars for watching birds. They usually tell me the name of the species, the colour and habitat of the birds they watched. But unfortunately, no one told me about the intelligence of these birds.  

My surprise about the birds´ intelligence came from a book an American friend recommended and I read during this summer (2021). The book is:

Title: The wonder of birds. What they tell us about ourselves, the world and a better future.

Author: Jim Robbins

Pages: 331

Year of publication: 2018

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

The book gives some basic information on inspiration birds gave human beings, birds´ evolution and intelligence. Instead of reviewing the book I select few interesting observations and recorded facts given in the book by researchers with knowledge about birds. I start presenting what is written about persons inspired by birds to fly and continue to some stories given in the book about intelligent birds.

Persons inspired by birds

“One of the first recorded human attempts to fly like a bird was that of the ninth-century Spanish Muslim polymath Abbas Ibn Firnas…” p.17 

“…the eleventh-century “flying monk” Eilmer of the Malmesbury Abbey, in Wiltshire, England was captive by the story of mythical Daedalus, who fashioned wings for himself and his son Icarus out of wax and bird feathers. Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting the wax that bound the feathers on his wings, and so he fell to his death…” p.18

“Leonardo da Vinci, too, had a fever to fly and would do much in his life to capture the essence of bird flight, but as an artist and scientist he took a much more studied approach than Ibn Firnas or Eilmer. Leonardo would sit on a hilltop near his home in Florence and sketch the black kites and goldfinches that soared and flitted above him. These sketches eventually became Codex on the Flight of Birds, the first known written record of the study of avian aerodynamics…” p. 18.

Intelligent birds

“Birds can also serve as guides for hunters. When a hunter from the Boron tribe is ready to head out into the bush of southern Ethiopia and Kenya to gather a bit of honey, he emits a loud, sharp whistle through a clasped fist to summon his partner, the greater honeyguide. The birds don´t always respond, but when they do, like a friendly from a Disney cartoon, the gray and white bird shows up and hovers, ready to help out – for a cut of the action. Sometimes the birds initiates the search and flags down the human, giving out a tir-tir-tirr

call and moving restlessly in the hunter´s presence, like a dog begging to go for a walk. Prior to the hunt it has likely already located the bees – for researchers have seen the birds peering into the hives before dawn while the bees are fast asleep. 

Either way, when it´s time to fetch the sweet stuff, the bird flies back and perches near the tribesman, flashing its white tail. As the human hunters nears, the bird flies ahead again and again, signalling each time with its tail to show the way. Once the bird reaches the sight of the honey, it changes its tune and gives out a soft “indication” call. When the hunter arrives, he fires up some bark to smoke the bees out of the hive, then splits it open with an axe or machete. Then he divvies up the find. The bird gets the wax, pupae, and larvae, and the hunter keeps the honey. Some believe the honeyguide must also be given a taste of the sweet stuff or, next time out, its retribution may lead a tribesman to a venomous snake or a lion.” Pp.104-105.

“…biologist Pamela Egremont watched as Chinese fishermen on the Li River used cormorants to catch fish. The fishermen place a neck ring on the birds, which cinches their throat tightly so they can´t swallow, and they are then trained to return with the fish in their mouth. The birds are allowed, however, to eat every eighth fish. When they turn to the fishermen after the seventh fish, Egremont wrote in a journal article, they “stubbornly refuse to move again until their neck ring is loosened” so they can eat the eighth fish as usual. “They ignore an order to dive and even resist a rough push or a knocking, sitting glum or motionless on their perches. One is forced to conclude that these highly intelligent birds can count up to Seven.” P.139.

“Crows have a remarkably robust memory, and can remember a human face that has done them wrong for years. University of Washington corvid researcher John Marzluff and two students wore rubber masks to test crows that live on campus. A caveman mask was deemed “dangerous” and a mask of Dick Cheney was labelled “neutral.” Students in the dangerous mask trapped and banded seven crows. Over the next several months, volunteers donned the two types of masks on campus, this time walking prescribed routes and not bothering the crows. Yet the crows remembered the “dangerous” faces. In a display of anger common to crows, they vocally scolded people in a caveman mask much more loudly and harshly than they did before they were trapped, even when the mask was disguised with a hat or worn upside down. The neutral mask provoked no reaction…” pp139-140.

“Wolves and ravens have some kind of understanding: They are partners, hunting and eating side by side – which is why the naturalist Bernd Heinrich calls ravens “wolf birds.” They depend on wolves to kill elk, deer, and other animals and rip their carcasses open, things that ravens can´t do on their own. Wolves, in turn, often rely on ravens to spot game from their highly mobile aerial vantage point and call attention to it. When ravens land at an animal carcass and are unable to open it, they call out loudly and repeatedly until a wolf shows up to tear it open.” P.150.

In a lab study, Bugnyar used two of his captive birds, Munin, a dominant bird, and Hugin, the subordinate, named after the Norse god Odin´s mythical birds. Prying off the lids of color-coded film containers to get at the cheese stuffed inside was a snap for Hugin, but he could rarely get out more than a piece or two before Munin, who was not as good at removing lids, bullied his way in and took over. Then things got interesting. Hugin feinted – he hopped over to some similar looking but empty containers, pried off the lids, and pretended to voraciously gobble invisible food. When Munin came over to assume ownership of that food and was distracted, Hugin returned to the filled containers and resumed eating. Once Munin found out that the trick was on him, he threw a tantrum, hopping angrily about the cage, squawking and tossing food and empty containers about…” pp. 165-166.

Quotations above are selective stories from this book. I think through reading these kinds of books, we can learn a lot about birds, other animals and plants in our surrounding. These kinds of readings can develop our knowledge and experiences that will help us understand our natural environment to live in harmony with it.

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