What Are Birds?


Watch it to the end, people.

Seriously though, there are some birds (is that a crow? Or a blackbird? I’m not good with animals.) that are amazing as anything. There’s the African Grey parrot (Alex) that could speak and, not just that, but grapple with abstract concepts like colour and zero-sense. Alex himself did some work on teaching younger parrots as well. While Alex has a book about him, there have been other African Greys that show similar vocabulary, and when put to work together African Greys can solve complex problems – probably better than some humans on Survivor.

That’s pretty surprising, but we know that parrots can talk and are intelligent (if they weren’t, why would pirates have them on their shoulders?) – what I find much more intriguing is how crows make tools sometimes. So, if they need a twig to fit into a hole, or a wire to be in a hook, they can break off a twig, make it the right shape, and then show other crows how to do this.

It’s cultural learning, and it’s something that a lot of people just didn’t expect birds to do. I mean, their brains are too small, therefore… something.

Putting stock by brain size is a mistake that we’ve been making for many years. Stephen Jay Gould tells of this in his book The Mismeasure of Man to a great extent, but I’m only going to re-tell one example from it; when it was thought that brain size = smarter, better, faster, stronger, the people studying skull cases of Caucasians and Africans used different grain to measure the volume of skull cases. The finer grain used in Caucasian skulls fluffed up, while the more solid, heavy grain in the African skull cases sank and packed better when they were being measured. Each piece of the methodology was tweaked until the doctors and researchers could say, definitively, that Caucasians had bigger brain cases and so were smarter and meant to rule.

Minus ten points for unethical research practises, minus one hundred for it being born out of racism.

Despite the fact that birds have small heads, they’re pretty adept at doing things we’d describe as “showing intelligence”. Not only is this some awesome animal behavioural stuff, it’s also another nail in the coffin of the idea that we can determine intelligence from such gross attributes as brain size. Who knows, the next thing we see might be ornithography.

4 thoughts on “What Are Birds?

  1. sandra March 11, 2013 / 12:00 pm

    It’s a blackbird – crows are bigger, don’t have yellow beaks or indeed yellow rings around their eyes. Also, they hop in a menacing manner. Not a friendly bobbing like the blackbird, but more of a “I’m coming to hunt you down”. No wonder Alfred Hitchcock used them in “The Birds” (and I’m not surprised about the seagulls either):

    Are those children really running as fast as they could?

    • Duncan March 20, 2013 / 6:05 pm

      The graphics on that essentially make it A-class comedy.

      • potassium39 March 20, 2013 / 6:06 pm

        And +1 for Look Around You.

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