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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April 2, 2014 - 12:00pm
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