Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

October 2016

Vol. 44, No. 5

About Books: Quoth The Raven, "Cogito Ergo Sum"

Mark Lynch

The Genius Of Birds. Jennifer Ackerman. 2016. New York, New York: Penguin Press.

“Not assuming that other animals have thoughts and feelings was a good start for a new science. Insisting they did not was bad science.” (p. 27, Carl Safina. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.)

“For a long time, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid.” (p. 1, The Genius of Birds)

Some years back, an odd crow started to show up at my feeders. I never had crows at my feeders, so this bird stood out. Because it was also leucistic, with shocking white flight feathers, it was unique and identifiable even away from my house. When I went outside to fill the feeders, it would fly down, and I learned to save a piece of doughnut or leftovers to give it. It did not appear every day but often enough for me to look forward to its visits. Then I did not see the bird for a few weeks and assumed it had moved on. I was at an outside party at the house of the director of the art museum a few blocks away, eating and chatting with other guests in the backyard when the crow, “my crow,” flew down from nowhere and approached me looking for its usual handout. This bird had visually recognized me among about one hundred guests and fearlessly flew in and assumed it would be business as usual. I was shocked, but I had read anecdotal stories about crows mobbing crow hunters walking down streets, so I was not completely surprised. Still, this incident set me wondering if this behavior was a sign of complex intelligence.

Many of you probably have had experiences in which your observations of a bird’s unique behavior led you to wonder about its intelligence. If you studied ethology or zoology at the university level many decades ago, it was probably drilled into your budding academic brain that assuming complex intelligence, or anything that might smack of consciousness, in any creature other than a human was exhibiting anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is attributing human emotions and motivations to animal behavior. We all do this of course, but within the context of scientific research it was considered verboten. Academic careers have been wrecked in the past if a scientist assumed an anthropomorphic attitude in drawing conclusions while interpreting an animal’s behavior. We were taught to assume nothing and fall back on the belief that animal behavior was merely the result of instinct and did not involve deep intelligence. The human brain was considered the acme of evolutionary development. Although neurologists were still wrestling with the biological nature of consciousness, and philosophers were still trying to define it, it was assumed that if a creature didn’t have as large a brain as ours with the same structures in the same proportions, it could not have a rich interior life like ours. Animals could never have feelings or use reason to solve a problem. Of course, millions of pet owners would disagree strongly.

As the science of studying animal behavior has evolved, these conservative attitudes have begun to change, albeit very, very slowly. Many researchers now assume that most apes and some monkeys do indeed exhibit behaviors that indicate that they have intelligence, experience emotions, and may even have a concept of “self.” (I have to admit here that there are many times that I doubt the collective intelligence of humans, so accepting that a mountain gorilla has some intelligence is not a stretch.) Almost grudgingly, it is now being recognized that a few animals other than primates may also be members of this “consciousness club.” They include elephants, dolphins, whales, and perhaps some birds. Such beliefs are still considered controversial, and debates about animal intelligence and consciousness have generated a lot of heat and not much light. This dilemma is hardly surprising since hard definitions of consciousness, mind, or intelligence are elusive. We are not even certain how to measure our own intelligence let alone that of another species. “Intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our species, tricky to define and tricky to measure. One psychologist describes it as ‘the capacity to learn or to profit by experience.’” (p. 8)

In the last few years, some scientists have developed ideas of the uniqueness of animal minds even further. Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University, Carl Safina has written that using the human mind and brain as the gold standard against which other creatures are measured and always found wanting, is missing the point. Many species of animals exhibit their own special kinds of “mind” that have evolved for them to succeed in their particular environment. Humans are but one kind of mind. As Carl Safina put it, “At issue here is: who are we here with? What kinds of minds populate the world?” (p. 20, Beyond Words)

Jennifer Ackerman is a journalist who specializes in writing about science, nature, and human biology. In The Genius of Birds, she travels around the world to spend time with researchers who are redefining how we look at avian minds. She begins by attempting to define terms. “In this book, genius is defined as the knack for knowing what you’re doing for ‘catching on’ to your surroundings, making sense of things, and figuring out how to solve your problems. In other words, it’s a flair for meeting environmental and social challenges with acumen and flexibility, which many birds seem to possess in abundance.” (p.11) Of course, as soon as Ackerman has committed such a definition to print, you can imagine the reaction of neurologists and philosophers who will have their own definitions of “genius.” An important question is if she created a definition of genius that merely supports her findings. Well, she had to start with a definition of what she is writing about, and to her credit she included information from scientists with a wide variety of ideas about avian intelligence. But terms and definitions are important. Some researchers prefer the word “cognition” to “intelligence” because “intelligence” has so many human associations. Furthermore, cognition or intelligence does not also mean “consciousness” or a sense of self. Most of the scientists cited by Ackerman are “down in the weeds,” doing field and lab research aimed at trying to separate what is indeed intelligent behavior from simple reflexive processes (read: instinct).

Louis Lefebvre, biologist and comparative psychologist at McGill University, is one of the key scientists involved in this search for the best way to measure avian intelligence. He has even created an intelligence scale for birds. According to his scale, corvids, grackles, raptors, falcons, woodpeckers, sparrows, and tits all rank as very intelligent. On the low end of that scale are quail, ostriches, bustards, turkeys, and nightjars. The smartest species of birds are those that have altricial young. These are birds whose young are typically born blind and naked and have to stay in the nest for weeks before they leave.

Birds do have large brains for their body size, but size is a crude way to measure intelligence. Even within a species, brain size can vary. Early in studies of human neurology, it was thought that the seat of our intelligence lay in a structure called the neocortex. “The syllogism went like this: The neocortex is the special seat of intelligence. Birds have no neocortex. Therefore, birds have little or no intelligence.” (p. 56)

But comparing bird brains and human brains is an apples and oranges problem. Birds evolved quite differently from humans. Bird brains are not mammalian, they evolved from reptile and dinosaur brains. In fact, birds do have their own elaborate cortex-like neural systems and are therefore capable of complex behavior. Yes, birds have radically different brain “architecture” from us, but avian brains are organized in a similar fashion.

Ackerman begins her tour of avian minds in New Caledonia, where several researchers are studying the remarkable New Caledonian Crow, considered by many as the most intelligent bird on the planet. This species excels at complex problem solving and is adept at fashioning different tools out of pandanus leaves and twigs to solve those problems. These crows are so bright they have earned the moniker of avian “boffins,” British slang for “tech geeks.” “When these birds are problem-solving, they may be using forms of cognition intermediate between simple learning and human thought.” (p. 83)

Scientists like Alex Taylor are designing advanced cognition tests for New Caledonian Crows and so far have found out that they succeed on some tests but don’t do well on others. Why this is so has still to be discovered. Lest birders think at this point that The Genius of Birds is too technical, it is important to note that the book is written for the general intelligent audience and that Ackerman always keeps it entertaining and filled with interesting details about the birds themselves. Spoiler alert: she does tick the Kagu while on the island.

Do birds play? Ackerman considers the New Zealand parrot, the Kea, aptly nicknamed “mountain monkey.” This species is famous for being intelligent, bold, and curious. In the Kea’s case, its intelligence has also led it to be “ingeniously destructive.” (p. 92) It seems to be the juvenile delinquent of the avian world. These birds go out of their way to strip stopped cars of the rubber in their wipers and perform numerous other acts of avian vandalism, even acting in concert to steal people’s money from their wallets. Some people have concluded that they just get a kick out of screwing with humans, activities that would be an indication of intelligence.

Some researchers are testing the “social intelligence hypothesis,” the idea that a demanding social life may drive the evolution of the brain. Many birds have complex social systems, and one of the most complex is that of the Western Scrub Jay. They are constantly caching food and having to remember where they hid it, and they also pilfer other jays’ cached food. Researchers have observed jays stealthily observing other jays caching food. The kicker is that some jays realize they are being watched by future cache thieves, and knowing this they only pretend to cache food, “acting” as if they don’t know they are being watched. Can complex ever-changing behavior like this simply be an instinct or is this an indication of real intelligence?

Another interesting section of the book looks at avian mimicry and vocal learning. “But the odd thing is, so many aspects of human speech acquisition are similar to the way that song birds acquire their songs. In the great apes there’s no equivalent at all.” (p.159) If you thought that a mockingbird is simply “playing back” other songs heard in its nesting territory or that other birds’ songs are mostly inherited in the genes, you would be wrong. Song learning is a complex process in birds, and it varies tremendously from one species to the next. Some species, including the mimics, are like humans, and are “open ended learners” able to add new songs to their repertoire later in their lives. There are even known examples of one parrot teaching another parrot human speech. Examples like this and many others in the book seem to indicate that at least some species are intelligent and creative learners and that not everything a bird does is simply an instinct, hard-wired in its DNA.

Ackerman looks at the bowerbirds of Australia. Bowerbirds are medium sized birds that have large brains and are long-lived. The males of each species construct different kinds of complex arenas, which they decorate with colored objects, each species preferring a different color. When a female inspects the bower, the male picks up the objects and shows them to her. If she “agrees” to mate with him, the nest is built in a very different location. How many species, other than humans, do you know that use brightly colored objects to attract a mate? Because brightly colored objects are always in short supply, male bowerbirds not only pilfer other males’ objects, but when they do, they completely trash the bower. Some scientists think that male bowerbirds actually decorate their bowers for maximum optical effect, arranging smaller and larger objects in a way to create the optimal optical impact on the visiting female. If this is true, does that mean bowerbirds are creating art? “John Endler suggests that visual art can be defined as ‘the creation of an external visual pattern by one individual in order to influence the behavior of others, and…artistic skill is the ability to create art.’ Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University, views it as ‘a form of communication that coevolves with its evaluation.’ By these definitions, a bower would certainly seem to qualify as art, and bowerbirds as artists.” (p. 183)

The Genius of Birds touches on many more topics and covers a surprising amount of complex material. Ackerman easily weaves all these different strands into a fascinating and powerful narrative. By the end of the book, the reader realizes that the concept of intelligence in humans, let alone other species, is still not well understood. There are many, sometimes conflicting, definitions of intelligence. For example: is being supremely adaptive to a challenging and ever changing variety of situations a sign of real intelligence? If this is true, and some scientists think this the case, then lowly English Sparrows and starlings are geniuses. As Ackerman puts it, “Intelligence as we understand it may vary among birds, but no bird is truly stupid.” (p. 261)

Humans have always taken for granted that we are alone at the very apex of the evolution of the mind. But it seems we all were being anthropocentric, looking at the rest of the animals around us and only searching for what we thought we knew about ourselves. The reality is much more complex. “Birds learn. They solve new problems and invent novel solutions to old ones. They make and use tools. They count. They copy behaviors from one another. They remember where they put things.”(p. 9)

Maybe some species of birds keep mental lists of all the different humans they spot. Maybe they have more important things to do.

Literature Cited:

  • Safina, Carl. 2015. Beyond Words: What Animals Think And Feel. New York, New York. Picador.

Note: Although Safina focuses his field observations only on mammals (elephants, wolves and orcas) he discusses other species at length as well as many of the crucial issues about looking at animal minds. He has some important criticisms of much touted tests of nonhuman self such as the “mirror test” and the concept of “theory of mind.”

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