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Maybe “Bird-Brain” Is No Longer Appropriate
By Bill Hoagland
For years, the term “bird-brain” meant having low-level intelligence and that was based on the assumption that birds are stupid. But as we learn more and more about just how smart some birds are, maybe this description is inappropriate. In fact, we are learning that various species of birds can count, use tools, recognize humans and even understand human speech, all functions which suggest they are much smarter than we give them credit for. Certainly crows, bluejays, peacocks, falcons and parrots all have the ability to interact with humans and to adapt to our world as may be necessary to survive.
Earlier this year, for example, a group of ravens gathered in the parking lot of a Costco grocery store in Anchorage, Alaska and were stealing meat and other things right out of the grocery bags being carted to the cars. One raven would begin circling over a vulnerable shopper and make some distracting noises, while another raven would swop in and grab stuff out of the grocery bag. Pretty cool, as long as it is not your shopping bag—and pretty cool unless the ravens all think you look like the most vulnerable person on the parking lot.
Another indication that some birds are intelligent is the fact that they sometimes engage in “bird-play”, in which they intentionally provoke or taunt other animals just because they can. For example, we used to have two peacocks at Annie’s barn—Peabody and Petunia. They were two of the most intelligent birds I have ever seen. They loved to “play” with the horses, spreading their wings and running full bore at the horses so as to work them into a frenzy. Then they would sit back and watch the horses racing around until the horses calmed down, and then it would start all over again. And when they got bored teasing the horses, they would go next door and tease the dogs in the neighbor’s kennel, first running at them to get them worked up and then perching over them in the trees like vultures, perhaps making the dogs wonder if the “vultures” knew something they didn’t.
There is a scientific explanation as to why some species of birds are smarter than other birds. According to Jennifer Ackerman, a bird researcher, autopsies of certain birds reveal that some birds have relatively larger brains when compared to the brain size of other animals. And it appears that within those “bird brains”, there is a higher degree of “connectivity” between portions of the bird’s brain—think of it as a better job of wiring– which means they can think faster than other animals having a more simplistic brain structure.
I got to thinking about bird brains after writing a recent column in this paper about “Fred”, the rooster that my son, Joe, rescued. “Fred” obviously had to be unusually intelligent to have survived for almost a year “homeless” in the middle of the Village of Hardin. And Joe tells me that since being at Joe’s farm, “Fred” can distinguish people he knows from people he doesn’t know and presumably he does this by looking at the facial differences. If he recognizes you, he might even let you pick him up. Being the skeptic that I am, I had to fact-check this on the internet and discovered that even the lowly chicken is capable of counting, learning colors and recognizing and befriending specific humans—facts that for obvious reasons, you won’t find on the “Chick-fil-a” website.
So when someone refers to you as a “bird-brain”, maybe you should take it as a compliment.
• Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.