Called A Bird Brain? Consider It A Compliment.

Image result for crow bending wireIn 2002, researchers were stunned when a New Caledonian crow named Betty made a hook tool to solve a complex physical challenge: she used leverage and manipulation to bend a wire into a hook perfectly designed to lift a bucket to the top of a tube and bring a treat within beak distance. 

Since 2002, there has been a diverse set of investigations into avian intelligence. Many of the investigations focused on the relationship between brain activities and behaviors associated with intelligence. 
Image result for blue jay stashing foodFor example, it is well known that the hippocampus is engaged when two components associated with intelligence testing, memory, and spatial relationships, are required for problem-solving. A human who excels at the game, Concentration (a game that requires remembering where specific cards are located face down), would be no match for a bird that makes hundreds or even thousands of flights stashing seeds that later will be retrieved when food is scarce. This skill requires a highly developed ability to use spatial memory. Not only do the birds remember the approximate location of the food but remember specific landmarks that pinpoint the exact location (for example, if food is stashed and later buried by snow, and a stone used by the bird as a landmark is secretly moved, the bird searches a location that is moved by the same distance and direction as the stone).

Human intelligence historically has been measured by the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test. Recent refinements distinguish between analytical and creative intelligence, general and specific intelligence, and a variety of other subcategories. Evaluating avian intelligence has no universally accepted tests but research into the problem-solving abilities of birds has revealed that birds surpass humans in many dimensions of problem-solving. A recent line of research uses advanced technologies to discover what connections among different parts of the brain activate, and in what quantities, during specific problem-solving events.

For example, research suggests that a small hippocampus in a bird may be as powerful as a much larger mammalian hippocampus. The reason likely is that brainpower is not directly related to brain size. It is the number of, and interconnections among, neurons that powers the brain, not its size. A parrot has as many neurons in its walnut-sized brain as the macaque monkey has in its lemon-sized brain. Indeed, the small brain size may have advantages not available in larger brains. There is strong evidence that short connections between specific parts of the brain allow birds to make faster decisions and discriminatory perceptions than occurs in mammals with larger brains.

While there is no universally recognized IQ test for humans to say nothing of other species, there are intelligent behaviors that can be compared. Birds are as adept as primates at solving certain problems. For example, adapting to unexpected changes in the environment, planning ahead, considering another's state of mind, and recognizing individuals within a species as distinguished from other members of the same species. An example of using a combination of these skills is a bird may stash food and upon departing catch another bird observing. The bird hiding the food later will return to move the stashed food when the observing bird is clearly absent.

Even an intuitive understanding of physics is present in some birds. New Caledonian birds like Betty have been demonstrated to understand that stones can displace water but floating sticks cannot.

Alex the Parrot.jpg

Perhaps the most famous genius bird is Alex, an African grey parrot. There are many articles about Alex and his extensive vocabulary exceeding 100 words. What astonished me most as I read about Alex the genius bird was that he understood the concept of zero, something that eluded many ancient civilizations that had mastered basic arithmetic. "Alex was given several different colored blocks (two red, three blue, and four green—on a tray similar to [but in different quantities than] in the picture). Pepperberg asked him, "What color three?" expecting him to say blue. However, as Alex had been asked this question before, he seemed to have become bored. He answered "five!" This kept occurring until Pepperberg said, "Fine, what color five?" Alex replied, "none" (Wikipedia). Alex understood that a group of five colored blocks did not exist on the tray! He understood that "none" meant non-existence.

So the next time you hear someone refer to a shallow or ignorant person as a bird brain, refer them to Jennifer Ackerman's The Genius of Birds for a lesson in humility.

American Politics and the African Wild Dogs of Botswana

American-style politics have a lot in common with how African wild dogs packs in Botswana make collective decisions. Evolution has left a narrow gap between how Homo sapiens and Lycaon pictus make "democratic" decisions. The dog packs vote, propositions put forth by leaders are more successful than those offered by lower-ranking members, and there is a protocol to collectively decide when and how to take actions that affect the community.

Let's Hunt

A greeting ceremony, literally called a rally, assembles a congress that will make a group decision. A dog proposes to initiate a hunt by arising from rest with head lowered, mouth open, and ears folded back, then awaits a group consensus. If a dominant dog initiates the rally the chances of collective action are greatly increased but can be overridden by the lower members of the congress. A threshold of "ayes" (a quorum) is required to execute the proposed action. Each affirmative vote is expressed by sudden bursts of air expelled from the nostrils.

The Congress

The decision to act depends on the group's perception of the urgency of hunting compared to the attraction of continuing to enjoy the comfort of the status quo. An initial rally only succeeds about one-quarter of the time. A second attempt at a rally succeeds about half the time. A third attempt succeeds about two-thirds of the time. This suggests the urgency of the proposed action (hunger?) has a strong effect on the decision.

Dominant individuals in the pack have a disproportionate influence on group decisions. When a dominant dog initiates a rally, three votes of approval is, on average, enough to launch a hunt. When a low-ranked dog initiates a rally, launching a hunt takes ten votes on average and therefore is more likely to fail.

Dominance in African wild dog packs is rarely achieved by aggression. African wild dogs achieve a dominance ranking according to a breeding pair's contribution to ensuring the survival of the pack.  Dominance is evidenced by the priority a dog has to access a carcass.

There is little understanding of why votes are cast by expelling air through the nostrils but one of two theories, or a combination of, may explain: the sneeze-like sound may simply be a way of communicating approval of the action, or the dogs may be clearing their nostrils knowing that whatever action is proposed, the olfactory sense and clear air passages will be needed.

Resting Pack
A combination of the two theories is likely. The sneeze may act as a call to order initiating the process of recruiting other dogs for the hunt. The action is voted upon. A group decision is approved or declined in about four minutes on average. Either the pack returns to rest or the group (or a subgroup) departs, most often lead by a dominant member or members.

The similarities between the American political process and that of the African wild dogs of Botswana are clear. However, American politicians lack one behavior prevalent among the African wild dog: as described by author Paul Janssen: "... the remarkable aspect of their hunting is the complete lack of aggression toward each other. Wild dogs have a social hierarchy but unlike many other social animals, there is little obvious intimidation." Take note, politicians.