If someone calls you a birdbrain consider it a compliment!
Birds are among the smartest animals in the world. The smartest of the smart are in the Corvidae family — crows, ravens, jackdaws, jays, nutcrackers, magpies, choughs, treepies and others. Controlled lab studies and thousands of observations in the wild show how remarkably advanced these birds are in their problem-solving skills. Corvidae — corvids, for short — are found everywhere in the world, except Antarctica, in 23 genera containing about 126 species. Here are some interesting facts about these amazing birds.
Louis Lefebvre, a behaviorist at McGill University in Montreal who is studying bird intelligence, has developed a test for gauging bird IQ. It’s based on how innovative birds are when faced with different challenges. His winner for smartest bird of all is the American Crow (also called the Common Crow). Many other researchers agree, and people who have experienced the challenges of keeping crows away from crops, birdseed and trash cans may not be surprised by this.
Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are second only to humans in intelligence — even smarter than apes in some research tests. Crows as Clever as Great Apes, Study Says. Their brain-to-body weight ratio is equal to that of the great apes and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) and only slightly lower than in humans.
Crows can make and customize tools, understand causality, can reason, count up to five and remember human faces. Wild Hooded Crows in Israel use bread crumbs to bait-fish and in Norway and Sweden they drag fishing lines out of water to get at the hooked fish. New Caledonian Crows are famous for their innovations and tool making, including “knives” made of stiff leaves. Japanese Carrion Crows in Japan drop hard-to-crush nuts on the roadway at intersections so that moving traffic will crush them open. That may not seem so spectacular, but the crows also wait for the traffic light to change to red and then walk out in front of the stopped traffic to gather the nuts. Watch them here
There are about 32 crow species, plus several subspecies. Three species inhabit the U.S.: American Crow, Northwestern Crow and Fish Crow. Another species, the Hawaiian Crow, is extinct in the wild, but can be seen at the San Diego Zoo, where a captive breeding program is ongoing. (photo of American Crows: Ingrid Taylar / Flickr; cc by 2.0)
Ravens, in the same genus (Corvus) as crows, are about equally smart. They’re cooperative hunters who often work in pairs — one to distract a bird or mammal parent and the other to grab the egg or newborn animal. They’re also known for their ability to understand cause and effect and to solve increasingly complicated problems. While crows are probably best known for playful behavior, ravens are playful, too. Here’s a very cute raven lying on his back and playing with a twig.
One researcher reports observing a raven who would carry away a large chunk of frozen suet by first using his beak to carve a circle around the entire chunk he wanted, instead of chipping away at the suet for numerous small pieces. You’ll see in this video a wild raven who correctly reasoned that humans could help him solve a serious problem.
There are 10 raven species in the world, plus a couple of subspecies. Two species inhabit the U.S., the Common Raven, Corvus corax, and the Chihuahuan Raven, Corvus cryptoleucus. (photo © animalinfo / iStock)
Jackdaws are the smallest birds in Corvus, but that doesn’t mean they are lacking in brain power. They’re highly curious, with a fondness for bright, shiny things, and may sometimes carry them away. They have complicated food-sharing behavior. In England and Wales, they’ve been known to remove caps from full bottles of delivered milk setting on porches and drinking from the contents.
There are several stories of jackdaws caring for injured relatives. They’re easily trained to perform tricks and to speak. Lab research shows they can interpret human communicative gestures to find hidden food, such as when a human gazes at food or points to it. They are also the only non-primates known to communicate with each other using their eyes.
There are two jackdaw species, the Western Jackdaw, Corvus monedula, inhabiting Europe, Asia and North Africa, and the Daurian Jackdaw, Corvus dauuricus, which inhabits Russia; plus several subspecies. Jackdaws follow deer herds and also pluck their hair for nests. (photo: Pete Aylward / Flickr; cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Nutcrackers (pronounced like it’s spelled) are noted for their amazing ability to remember things about their environment and their orientation within it.
Clark’s Nutcrackers, for example, feed on pine seeds and every summer they hide up to 30,000 seeds in preparation for winter — and, laboratory tests show they remember where almost all of them are! Each cache contains one to three seeds, so that’s about 10,000 to 15,000 different locations. The nutcrackers live in areas that tend to get lots of snowfall that hides cache locations. “These caches are made during the summer, so in the winter the snow obscures and changes the landscape. This means the birds have to use various levels of landmarks and triangulation to remember the locations…sometimes requiring the birds to burrow under the snow to reach them,” says corvid expert Jennifer Campbell-Smith. The Nutcrackers are also smart enough to alter their behavior if they think they’re being watched while hiding a seed. And, they can distinguish between numbers, always picking the larger pile of seeds when offered — even when the piles are very close in number.
There are three species of nutcrackers in the world. The only one inhabiting the U.S. is Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana. (photo of Clark’s Nutcracker: Vernon / Wiki; cc by 2.0)
|Choughs (pronounced “chuffs“) are birds of Europe, Asia and Africa. They perform spectacular aerial displays that include tumbling, twisting, folding their wings and zooming downward until the very last moment before they’d hit the ground. There are two species, easily told apart: the Red-billed, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, and the Yellow-billed, P. graculus, plus several subspecies. Click here to watch a Red-billed Chough being trained. (photo of Red-billed Chough: Dibyendu Ash / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0)|
Magpies* (pronounced like it’s spelled) can recognize themselves in a mirror — the only other animals known to share this ability are Chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants and humans of about two years of age and older. Click here to watch “Gertie,” a Eurasian Magpie, Pica pica, look at herself in a mirror, notice a spot on her throat put there by a researcher, and try to remove it. Magpies are also known for holding “funerals” for a fallen friend, including “bouquets” of grasses. Here’s Rooney, an adorable and very verbal magpie. There are 13 magpie species in the world, two of them inhabit the U.S.: the Black-billed, Pica hudsonia, and the Yellow-billed, Pica nuttalli.
*Not all birds with the word “magpie” in their name are corvids; for example, the Magpie Goose, Magpie Shrike and the Australian Magpie aren’t corvids. The “pie” in magpies and treepies refers to the black-and-white plumage that many of them have. (photo of Gertie wearing a yellow dot: Prior H, Schwarz A, Güntürkün O (2008) Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition. PLoS Biol 6(8): e202. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202; PD)
More reading: America’s Smartest Birds