Feb 22 2009

Speaking of Brainy Birds

Published by at 3:28 pm under Bird Behavior,Travel

Florida Scrub Jay on Joan Tague's hat (photo by Chuck Tague)Right now I’m in Florida, birding with Chuck and Joan Tague, and have learned…

Though parrots are very smart, they aren’t the only birds with brains.  Members of the corvid family – jays, crows and ravens – are darn smart too.

Pictured here is one of the wise guy corvids, a Florida scrub-jay, standing on Joan Tague’s hat. 

Corvids can remember, analyze, innovate and problem solve.  They even use tools.  As it turns out this is exactly the kind of intelligence that comes from living in complex social groups, and for that sort of family life in the bird world, you need look no further than the Florida scrub-jay.

Florida scrub-jays are extreme habitat specialists who require arid oak and palmetto scrub to survive.  East of the Mississippi this habitat is isolated to Florida and it is further isolated – and disappearing – within Florida.  This means scrub-jays usually spend their entire lives within a half mile of their birthplace.  The end result is that they are a “Threatened” species. 

Scientists conjecture that scarce suitable habitat over a long period of time has led the Florida scrub-jay to a lifestyle adaption called cooperative breeding.  It’s an unusual way to live.  Only 3% of the world’s bird species use it. 

In cooperative breeding, each pair has one to six nest helpers who feed and protect the young.  The helpers may or may not be related to the breeding pair but they learn breeding skills and increase the breeding pair’s nesting success.  Helpers also have the advantage of being on site to inherit the territory should one of the pair die. 

The arrangement works for all of them and provides a perfect setting to develop smart birds.  Because they must cooperate to survive, the better they can anticipate the actions of others, the better they can deal with life’s situations.  As Candace Savage says, “Nothing is more intellectually challenging than living in a social group, surrounded by a bunch of other animals that are sharpening their wits on you.”

So I ask you.  Is it smart for a wild bird to stand on someone’s hat?  And if yes, why?

I hope to get the chance to ask him myself.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

One response so far

One Response to “Speaking of Brainy Birds”

  1. D'gouon 22 Feb 2009 at 4:59 pm

    You might find Bernd Heinrich’s books interesting:
    Ravens in Winter
    The Mind of the Raven
    A Year in the Maine Woods (not just about Ravens though).


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