Anyone who works with birds (as I do) often has to suffer derisory remarks made by the inexperienced and ill-informed, alluding to our subjects’ intelligence, or apparent lack thereof. I’d like to argue the case to the contrary, on their behalf.
Much has been made of the fact that chimps have recently taken to poking sticks into the earth to
retrieve termites – a sign of higher intelligence, they say. Finches have been doing the same thing in the Galapagos Islands, for millennia, using cactus needles to pry for grubs beneath the bark of a tree. Egyptian Vultures use pebbles to break open Ostrich eggs.
Some are skilled engineers, building the most complex of structures. Ploceus weavers all over Africa build intricate nests, resembling pods with tube entrances. Colonies of nests, each built with an array of different knots, sometimes weigh trees down to the point of collapse. The Hamerkop, a small waterbird, builds a nest dome out of twigs and grass, that can weigh up to 80 kilos, and support the average person’s weight! Many birds, such as sunbirds, incorporate spider’s webs into nests for camouflage and strength. Tailorbirds stitch leaves together to form a nest cup, hence the name. The Penduline Tit is the most cunning, however, building a false nest above a real one, which has a concealed entrance itself. Any predator will check the decoy nest, unaware of eggs or chicks hidden completely in the real nest below.
I admit, a lot of this may be instinct, but some families of birds, most notably Crows (Corvids), have real problem-solving power and the ability to learn. Lab tests aside, wild crows have been seen mobbing vultures, returning to their roosts after feeding, so that they regurgitate, securing the crows an easy meal.
Falconers are very familiar with the typical crow’s craftiness: while being pursued by a falcon, some will fly between barbed wire strands, occasionally killing the falcon. One old crow, whilst being chased, flew all the way to a nearby train station, always between a set of power lines, ensuring his safety.
As prey gets smarter, so do their predators. Verreaux’s Eagles in Africa hunt in pairs; one chases the prey along the cliffs, while the other surprises the prey head-on. Watching a pair of Lanner Falcons hunt is exhilarating, as one flushes the prey and the other stoops down for the kill; such is the high level of close coordination needed for such a hunt. The falcons also realize this – if you walk in a field with quail flushing in every direction, the Lanners come in droves to pick them off. It’s like falconry, but without the need to carry the bird home.
The Crowned Eagle actually shows forethought and planning in this regard. While one of the pair causes a distraction by perching out in the open, the other will swoop in and simply
puncture the intended target with its huge back talon (often a large antelope or monkey, both of which can and often do fight back if the eagle were to grab and hold on). Such an attack may seem to have failed, but both eagles with then follow the target for days, until it succumbs from the infection caused by the initial stab wound.
This shows the birds are capable of recognising a risky target, and working out a way to solve a complex problem: killing an animal in the safest way possible.
The genius of the bird world, though, must be the Green Night Heron. These minute herons have been seen, several times and independently of others, using bait to fish with. Instead of eating the bread thrown to it (erroneously), it used the bread to lure fish close, which it then stabs. It’s efficient, effective, and hugely clever. Birds have it all, they just have a hard time letting you know.