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Desert Diary
Birds/Smart Birds


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People have long favored the term "birdbrain" to stand for anyone of less than stellar intellectual ability. Behaviorists are beginning to rethink this, though. Long hampered by a tradition that interpreted the brain of a bird as great for instinct but lousy for thought, it's only recently that mainstream science seems to be rethinking things. Perhaps not surprisingly, the powers that be seem to be arriving at some of the same conclusions as many unlettered students of birds. Namely, that some birds are downright smart!

The corvids, the family that includes ravens, crows, and jays, have long had the reputation of being particularly bright. Now some scientists are comparing them favorably with apes for complex intelligence. As an example in street smarts, Caledonian Crows regularly fashion a hook tool from twigs by judicious trimming. In the laboratory, with no twigs available, but with a selection of wires, one crow proceeded to bend a wire of the right length into a hook to snag food otherwise out of reach. Why I know people who couldn't manage that!
pen and ink


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Painting of the Common Crow

Painting of the Common Crow (Corvus brachyrhnychos) by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. After Henshaw (1921).



Emery, N. J., and N. S. Clayton. 2004. The mentality of crows: Convergent evolution of intelligence in corvids and apes. Science 306:1903-1907.

Henshaw, H. W. 1921. The book of birds. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C. 195 pp.

Hurtley, S., and P. Szuromi, editors. 2004. Brainy and agile birds. Science 306:1857.