We don’t habitually think of birds as being very intelligent but sometimes we see behaviour that makes us re-assess them. Video cameras are ubiquitous these days and social media shares anything noteworthy with amazing speed, so more of us see more examples now than ever before. Whether that will lead to a cultural shift in our perception of bird intelligence remains to be seen … let’s hope it does, because we only protect what we value.
These three video clips all appeared in my Facebook feed in the last few months. The first two show swans and a crow indulging in sports we consider specifically human, surfing and tobogganing, and there is no doubt at all that they are doing so for our own reason – it’s fun!
The swan footage was filmed by a local on the Gold Coast, shown on Channel 9 News and quickly went viral, according to the Gold Coast Bulletin. By the time I saw it, Channel 9 had been edited out and the information about location lost, but I tracked down the original:
The crow is using a ‘tool’ for entertainment and that’s pretty impressive but we always knew that crows were among the smarter birds. What about herons?
As one commenter on the YouTube page noted, this goes beyond using a tool for purely mechanical advantage (e.g. a monkey using a stick to increase the reach of his arm) to exploiting predictions about the behaviour of another animal. It’s not unique to this individual bird, either, as I found when looking for the original video: typing “heron fishing bread” into the YouTube search box got me over 100 results and, even allowing for duplications and irrelevancies amongst them, at least a dozen birds of several related species showing similar skill.
“Bird-brain” may take some time to become a compliment, but I do think we need to stop using it as an insult.