While your first reaction to being labelled a “bird brain” might not be overwhelming joy, take a second to reconsider the grounds behind this supposed insult before taking offense. Studies exploring the puzzle-solving abilities of birds have shown that actually, they might just be ahead of the game.
As the name suggests, New Caledonian crows live on the islands of New Caledonia. They survive on a diet of larvae that they remove from trees using twigs- they poke the twig into the tree bark until the larvae bites the end before pulling it out, larvae in tow. Researchers observed this behaviour and wondered if the crow’s ability to make and use these tools could be tested. They left a captive crow with a bucket of food placed inside a tube and a straight piece of wire. The only way for the crow to reach the food was to bend the end of the wire to form a hook and pull the bucket out of the tube. After 5 attempts at trying to reach the food with the straight wire (and failing) the crow bent the end of the wire to form a hook and successfully pulled the bucket out of the tube to reach the food, despite never before having done the experiment or been shown how to do it.
Another example of the amazing problem solving abilities of birds comes from Goffin’s cockatoos. Following the work with New Caledonian crows, a joint research project was undertaken to test the abilities of the cockatoo when faced with a 5 step puzzle to open a hatch which would reveal food (see image). The puzzle involved first removing a pin (#5 on the image) that was placed through the end of a screw. Once the pin was removed the screw could be undone which freed a bolt. The bolt was removed and a wheel could then be turned 90 degrees and removed before sliding a bar to open the hatch and reveal the food. The birds were separated into groups: some were allowed to watch the problem being solved before attempting it, some were given it in stages and others hadn’t seen the problem at all before being asked to solve it. 10 cockatoos were given the puzzle, but one who was given the puzzle as a whole and never before seen it managed to solve it in a mere 5 attempts, which is probably less than your average student after a trip to the union bar.
So take a moment before casually muddying the reputation of the humble bird with a throwaway insult and bask in the knowledge that being a “bird brain” might be a good thing after all. It’s been said that the biggest threat of world domination comes from cats with opposable thumbs- but what if Hitchcock was right and it’s the birds?
To find out more search Youtube for “New Caledonian crow tool use” or “Goffin’s cockatoo lock puzzle” to see the experiments in action.