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Blane Klemek column: Birds display high degree of intelligence

Most birds have large and very well developed brains relative to their body size. Moreover, the brains of birds and primates are actually more similar than one would think.

Both groups of animals exhibit left hemispheric dominance, which is associated with learning and mastery of vocal repertoires.

Indeed, without such brain capacity and function, a bird's ability to master motor skills necessary for survival, social adaptation and learning complex vocalizations would not be possible.

For example, laboratory research has shown that birds outperform many mammals in experiments designed to test learning and intelligence. Birds such as magpies, crows, ravens and blue jays do especially well. One experiment that tests problem solving, known as the Krushinsky problem, is especially interesting.

In this experiment the bird looks through a small window through a wall at two dishes sitting side by side - one that's full of food and the other that is empty. The two dishes are then moved apart from each other and are placed behind two swinging doors that the bird cannot see through.

Thus, the bird's dilemma becomes choosing the right direction the food dish went. According to research results, cats and rabbits do not perform well at this experiment, but dogs and crows excel at the test.

Parrots and their relatives are other birds noted for their intelligence and problem solving abilities, too. What's more, parrots' linguistic prowess is extraordinary among those creatures both feathered and furred. For example, take the story of Alex, an African gray parrot that a woman by the name of Irene Pepperberg once worked with.

Pepperberg taught Alex a vocabulary of English words that identified more than 80 objects, as well as commenting, requesting, and refusing words and phrases about the objects. When Alex was presented with an array of different objects of different shapes and colors and asked, for instance what object is green, Alex would say "Wood," which in that particular test was indeed a block of green-colored wood.

Alex was unfailing in answering more complex questions, too. In this experiment, Alex was tested on his ability to absorb and understand a request to identify an object based on two distinct categories. In the experiment, Alex was asked, "What color is the three-corner key?" Alex, therefore, needed to understand how both shape and object were related. Alex was presented once again with the display of different objects and would answer "yellow," the color of the key.

Also astounding was his ability to determine discrepancies. When confronted with identical or dissimilar objects and asked, "Whats same?" or "What's different?" Alex mastered the concept and would answer appropriately, "None."

Whether Alex was just one exceptional bird or if others of his species could be similarly taught was not answered in the experiment. Or, perhaps Alex was simply demonstrating his exceptional spatial memory, something that parrots share with many other birds.

In a 2002 issue of the journal Science, a startling discovery was made in a behavioral study where a pair of crows was the subjects. The pair was placed in a cage along with a pipe. Inside the pipe, but out of the crows' reach, was a small pail of food.

Two lengths of wires - one with a hooked end, the other straight - were available to the birds. One of the birds used the hooked wire to fish the pail out of the pipe for a snack. Meanwhile, the other crow then stole the hooked wire from the bird to use for itself.

Undaunted, the "violated" bird picked up the straight wire and fashioned its end into a hook so it could be used to retrieve a snack, too. To the surprised scientists conducting the study, this revealed two things: not only were the crows "tool users," they were also "tool makers."

Since then, another experiment was carried out to test self-awareness in another species of corvid - the magpie. It was dubbed the "mirror test" by researchers who wanted to know if magpies could recognize themselves in a mirror. Up until this time, researchers had long believed that chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins were the only other animals, besides humans, that possessed such abilities.

Researchers marked individual magpies with a red or yellow dot that could only be observed in a mirror by the marked bird. What researchers discovered was that magpies would routinely scratch the mark on their bodies after each bird saw itself in the mirror, thus proving that the images the birds saw in the mirror were indeed themselves.

Furthermore, to show that the birds marked with the colored spots were not just reacting to what had just been done to them - that is, the researchers putting the spots on their bodies - fake black marks were placed on the birds' black feathers. These marks were invisible to the birds and could therefore not be viewed in the mirror. None of the magpies, it turned out, scratched these sham marks.

As such, next time you're driving along a scenic byway and you notice a crow or raven alongside the road feeding, watch what the bird usually does. It just hops a few feet to the side, lets you drive by, and then it hops back to resume its feast. That's bird smarts, and certainly not "bird brain" behavior.

Until next time, be sure to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at