Birds Know a
Than We Do

Even ordinary backyard birds do extraordinary things. Purple Martins, for instance, who frequently nest in suburban bird boxes throughout most of North America, spend their "winters" in Brazil, in South America, where it's summer on the other side of the Equator. That they should fly such a great distance and then find their ways back to where they began is simply amazing. One wants to believe that Purple Martins must possess at least a glimmer of genius with regard to navigating and flying such long distances.

Mammy duck with ducklings

On the other hand, it's also true that if, soon after hatching, baby ducklings see a cardboard box pulled by a string passing by, they'll follow the box as if it were their mother. Moreover, as the ducklings grow up, they'll continue following the box. They just do not catch on... Hearing this, you can be forgiven for deciding that birds are pretty dumb.


On September 6, 2007, Alex the African Grey Parrot died at age 31. At Brandeis Univerisity scientist Irene Pepperberg had studied Alex for years. She documented Alex learning enough English to identify 50 different objects, 7 colors, 5 shapes, quantities up to and including 6 and a zero-like concept. He used phrases such as "I want X" and "Wanna go Y", where X and Y were objects and place-names. He developed concepts of categories, bigger and smaller, same-different, and absence. He combined words to identify, request, refuse, and categorize more than 100 different items.

Smart... Dumb... Just how smart are birds?

The correct answer is that birds, whether they're flying to Brazil or following a cardboard box, are beautifully adapted for their bird lives, and they have exactly appropriate brains and behaviors needed for the way they live.

We shouldn't ask how smart birds are, but we can indeed wonder how bird intelligence works. It isn't always as obvious as it seems. For instance, consider the situation with pigeons:

Young pigeons begin flapping their wings and flying erratically at a certain age, and their flying ability improves with time. This "learning process" strikes us humans as natural and inevitable because human babies go through "practice stages" learning to walk and talk. However, in a classic experiment done during the 1930's, a German ethologist -- a biologist studying animal behavior -- by the name of J. Grohmann reared a group of pigeons in tubes, so that they could never flap their wings. Another group of pigeons of the same age was allowed to develop in the open, going through weeks of wing-flapping and fluttering. When the pigeons in the open finally became able to fly, the pigeons in tubes, who'd never even spread their wings, were released. Amazingly, the tube-pigeons also could fly.

Therefore, what appears in nature to be "young pigeons learning to fly" is clearly something else, for young pigeons don't have to learn how to fly. They are born with the knowledge of how to fly -- their flying ability is innate.

When we make the error of assuming that other animals behave the way they do for reasons that "make sense" from the human perspective, we're being guilty of anthropomorphism. We're being anthropomorphic when we assume that adult birds feed their nestlings because they love them, or that male birds chase other male birds from their mates because they're jealous. "Love" and "jealousy" are human emotions, not bird.

This leads to some interesting questions. Could it be that birds do feel love and jealousy, but just feel less of it than humans? Or is it that birds feel something that we humans can't even imagine? Or maybe birds feel nothing, and just mechanically react to the world around them...

You may be surprised to learn that these simple-sounding questions still can't be answered to everyone's satisfaction. Some serious scientists would say that birds feel a lot, though not what we humans feel. Others would say that birds are almost like mindless little machines, and others hold in-between positions.

After many years of interacting with birds in the field, I personally think they "feel" much more than most people think, but their "feelings" take place in a world perceived in a way very different from the way humans perceive their world.