Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bird Brains

New respect for small minds ...

Long ago a particular bird impressed the heck out of me. I was sitting by a pond in a local park (Fuchs Park, to be precise) when this small winged creature hopped down to the water's edge to feed.

My friends who are bird fanciers will have to forgive me for not knowing its species. It was shiny and black or dark brown, that's the best I can do. The main thing is, it was not a water bird, one of those long-legged varieties that wade around looking for critters to scoop up in their long pointed or shovel-shaped beaks. No, this was a normal tree-dwelling type of bird, with a short beak built for pecking. I would have expected it to be searching the lawn for insects and worms.

Instead it amazed me by peering into the water, then quickly darting its head under and emerging with an aquatic snail. Placing it down on a rock, it held the shell with one foot while extracting the escargot with its beak. This bird was a gourmet! I marveled over its ingenuity. How had it learned to do this? When did the first of its kind learn that there was food in the water? Was the behavior taught, invented, or instinctual?

Recently far more advanced examples of avian intelligence have been documented. This BBC news item shows a rook smart enough to drop pebbles into a glass tube in order to raise the water level so it could reach the snack inside. (The story is told in one of Aesop's fables, which we now see may have been based on fact instead of fantasy.) I thought this problem-solving ability was impressive when I saw a chimpanzee do it, but a bird? How is it possible to pack so much intelligence into a brain the size of a pea?

Maybe we need to rethink the whole idea of how unique our intellectual capabilities are. True, Aristotle took the bird's accomplishment a step further when, noticing how his body displaced the bath water, he came up with the concept of mass and how to measure it. And building on such insights, look how far we've come.

But seeing these examples of the innate intelligence of some of the smallest creatures, we need to admit to a greater and more widespread intelligence at large in the world, the same one from which we, like the birds, have been born.


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