Bird Brains

People use the term "birdbrained" to mean stupid, but birds are not as birdbrained as you might suppose In a recent experiment at Oxford University, scientists discovered that crows have an ability that was once thought to be uniquely human: they can make tools. The crow in question figured out how to bend a piece of wire to make a hook and then use it to pull food out of a bottle. And crows are not the only birds that show uncanny signs of brain power, from feats of memory to the apparent mastery of language. But are their achievements due to true intelligence or instinct alone?

Probing for grubs

Woodpecker finches use cactus needles as tools to pry beetle grubs from trees. First the finch puts its ear to a branch to find out whether any tasty insects are scurrying around inside. Next, it pecks a hole in the wood to break into the beetle grub's tunnel. Finally, it pokes in the needle and tries to impale a grub and pull it out. How woodpecker finches first acquired this skill is a mystery, but experiments with caged birds have shown that other finch species can learn the same trick by copying.

Scientists used to believe that only human beings had the capacity to make and use tools.

Scientists used to believe that only human beings had the capacity to make and use tools.

Talking parrots

Parrots are excellent mimics, but how much can they really understand? A grey parrot called Alex was trained for several years by scientists at the University of Arizona, USA. Alex can count, say "yes" and "no", and ask for things; he even seems to boss people around. Alex's trainers claim his ability shows he can think, but sceptics point out that Alex only says the names of things he can see, so he appears to have no imagination.

bird brains

How to eat bees

Bee-eaters use a clever trick to disarm their prey. After a catching a bee, they rub it against a solid object to discharge the sting and tear off the poison sacs, which makes the bee edible. Then they toss it into their mouth in one piece. All bee-eaters know how to do this, so the technique is probably an instinct rather than a trick they have figured out by thought.

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