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11 Surprisingly Smart Birds

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Next time someone tries to put you down by calling you "bird brain," make them think again by introducing them to these 11 wickedly smart avians.

1. Cormorants Make Model Employees

A researcher in the 1970s observed the behavior of cormorants that Chinese fishermen used to catch fish. The birds were only fed after catching seven fish for their human masters, and once they hit that magic number, they would sit pat and refuse to continue working. The cormorants had learned to count to seven, and they used this to their advantage in their unique salary negotiations.

2. Japanese Crows Enjoy Street Food

In urban parts of Japan, crows have been known to drop shelled nuts onto crosswalks for cars to run over, cracking their shells. The birds then wait for red lights before retrieving the exposed meat.

3. Macaws Take Direction Well

Macaws can correctly tell the difference between left and right when trained with positive reinforcement.

4. Crows Never Have to Eat Crow

Crows aren’t the most glamorous birds, but biologists have dubbed them "feathered primates" for their tremendous brainpower and problem-solving skills. In one study, crows were able to memorize and correctly identify images they had been previously shown. When researchers switched the rules of the game to reward the birds for identifying images that didn’t match, they quickly adjusted and answered correctly mid-test.

5. Ravens Are Excellent Meat Cutters

After chasing a raven that was feeding on a piece of frozen raw beef, a researcher found that the bird had made cuts tracing the fat, allowing it to carry the food as one large chunk instead of making multiple trips. This ingenuity showed the raven was able to plan ahead.

6. Blue Tits Skim the Cream

Back when milk was delivered door-to-door, these birds were able to identify what kinds were being delivered based on the colors of the bottle caps. They learned which bottles contained extra-nourishing whole milk, and the birds then breached and drank from those containers.

7. Hummingbirds Know Their Turf

While these speedsters are tiny—they weigh less than a nickel—they make up for it with their massive memories. A hummingbird keeps tabs on every flower in its territory (which can contain up to 1000 different flowers) and remembers which ones are blooming and which ones have nectar.

8. Rooks Can Be The Bigger Bird

Rooks live in large groups and are prone to getting in fights. After squabbles, the birds make up by preening each other or sharing food. The first observations of this behavior surprised biologists, since for years scientists had thought that only primates were capable of this kind of reconciliatory behavior.

9. Pigeons Appreciate Fine Art

In a now-famous study, three researchers discovered that pigeons were able to differentiate between paintings by Picasso and Monet (although they could not tell the difference if the Monets were placed upside-down).

10. Cockatoos Can Cut a Rug

A famous cockatoo has demonstrated the ability to recognize complex musical beats and dance along in time (which requires an intelligent skill known as “beat induction”).

11. Woodpecker Finches Arm Themselves

These birds from the Galapagos Islands have been known to use sticks to impale grubs and other small invertebrates. Once incapacitated, the prey is easily devoured by the weapon-wielding finch.

Want to learn more about birds’ surprisingly complex brains and meet some lock-picking, puzzle-solving avian geniuses? Tune in to Nova on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup at 9 pm Eastern/8 pm Central on Wednesday April 9.

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9 Reasons to Love the Amazing Snow Monkey
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Snow monkeys (also known as Japanese macaques) are a cute, fun-loving bunch. Adorable as they may be, there’s much more to this primate than just a pretty face.

1. They Are Social Creatures (Very Social)

Snow monkeys live in groups called “troops,” which can include up to 500 of the primates (although it’s usually closer to 100). Things get crowded, but are largely kept in order because…

2. Female Snow Monkeys Run the Show

While males end up leaving the troops around the age of four, their female counterparts stick around for their entire lives. The females are responsible for socialization and are to thank for keeping the multiple families within each troop in line.

3. They’re Big on Collaborative Grooming

Snow monkeys groom each other for more than just cleanliness—it’s also their way of hanging out and being social. In fact, almost one-third of a snow monkey’s day is spent grooming other members of the troop (compared to the 1% of the day they spend cleaning themselves).

4. They Know How to Chill

Snow monkeys are world-famous spa-lovers. They spend tons of time bathing in hot springs with their friends and family and, like humans, dig the aprés ski lifestyle.

5. They Monkey Around

When not grooming or bathing, snow monkeys have been observed having some rambunctious fun—they occasionally roll and throw snowballs around.

6. They Are Real Chatterboxes

Snow monkeys have multiple coos and calls for different situations. They have calls to alert others that it’s grooming time, ones to welcome new monkeys into the troop, and coos to calm aggressive individuals during squabbles. They often respond to these calls with their own coos and have little conversations throughout the day.

7. They Speak With Accents

Studies have shown that snow monkeys in one region will have differently pitched coos than those of troops miles away.

8. They Can Handle a Winter

With a range that extends as far north as the tip of the Japanese island of Honshu, snow monkeys live further north than any other primate except humans. Snow monkeys can handle temperatures that dip below 15 degrees F, but they probably complained about this year’s extra-cold winter, too.

9. They Are Smart, With a Capital “S”

Scientists once observed a female snow monkey washing dirt off a sweet potato before she ate it. Soon, her companions picked up on this behavior and began to clean their own food as well, behavior that’s only observed in raccoons, humans, and snow monkeys. They also appear to be foodies – the snow monkeys began seasoning the potatoes in seawater to give the food a tasty kick.

Want to learn more about the amazing snow monkey? Tune in to Nature tonight at 8 pm Eastern/7 pm Central on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup.

All images courtesy of Thinkstock

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6 Traits Humans Inherited from Monkeys
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Humans didn’t evolve from modern monkeys, but if you trace the branches of our family tree far enough, you’ll realize that we share a common ancestor. Here’s what they left us with.

1. Coccyx, Our Former Tail

Why does falling on your tush hurt so much? Because the tailbone is a remnant of your long-lost tail. (For about four weeks, human embryos have a tail. In rare cases, people are born with them!) The tail disappeared millions of years ago when hominids started walking upright and no longer needed it for balance. However, its absence has left the bottom of our spinal columns exposed. That’s why your coccyx is so easy to bruise and break.

2. Our Complex Hands

Primates are the only mammals with opposable thumbs. Notharctus, a lemur-like monkey that lived 50 million years ago, was the first ape to develop human-like hands: A thumb, long fingers, and nails instead of claws. Why? They were—and still are—perfect for clinging to tree branches!

3. The Ability to See Colors

For millions of years, our ancestors were red-green colorblind. But thanks to receptors called “opsins,” everything went technicolor around 23 million years ago. Most colorblind animals have two sets of opsin genes. Humans, however, have three—and that third gene makes all the difference. Scientists posit that millennia ago, an opsin gene duplicated and mutated and was a huge advantage. (Scientists have confirmed this hypothesis by planting a third opsin gene in the retina of colorblind squirrel monkeys. The experiment gave them human-like color-vision.)

4. Our Crummy Sense of Smell

You can’t have it all. As our sense of vision got better, our sense of smell got worse. We have thousands of genes for smell, but nearly 600 of them don’t work anymore.

5. The Ability to Take a Stroll

For about 365 million years, most animals walked on all fours. But around 4.4 million years ago, a woodland primate called ardipithecus stood up and walked with an awkward wobble. After a couple million years, australopithecus emerged (its most famous member is “Lucy”). Just like humans', its knees bent inward, making walking more natural.

6. Our Bad Backs

Walking came with a cost: it ruined our backs. In order to stay balanced, our ancestors developed an “S-shaped” spine, which—as we all know—leads to kinks, knots, sciatica, and all sorts of pain. But all that aching might be worth it. Standing freed up our hands and gave us a chance to make tools.

Want to learn more about our monkey relatives? Tune in to Your Inner Fish tonight at 10 pm Eastern/9 pm Central on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup.


All images courtesy of Thinkstock

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