Feb 22 2009

Speaking of Brainy Birds

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

Florida scrub-jay on Joan's hat (photo by Chuck Tague)

Florida scrub-jay standing next to a scrub-jay pin (photo by Chuck Tague)

February 22, 2009

Right now I’m in Florida, birding with Chuck and Joan Tague, and have learned that parrots aren’t the only birds with brains.  Pictured here is a wise guy corvid, a Florida scrub-jay standing on Joan’s hat.

Corvids can remember, analyze, innovate and even use tools.  This is exactly the kind of intelligence that comes from living in complex social groups, and for that sort of family life look to this jay.

Florida scrub-jays (Aphelocoma coerulescens) are extreme habitat specialists who require arid oak and palmetto scrub to survive.  East of the Mississippi this habitat is isolated to Florida and is further isolated – and disappearing – within Florida.  With nowhere else to go, most Florida scrub-jays spend their entire lives within a half mile of their birthplace.

Scientists conjecture that scarce suitable habitat over a long period of time has led them to adopt an unusual lifestyle called cooperative breeding.  In it, 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, those who anticipate the actions of others are better at dealing 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 why does this smart bird land on a hat?

I hope to get the chance to ask him myself.  😉


(photo by Chuck Tague)

p.s. Florida scrub-jays are listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act and have been studied extensively.

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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