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No. 2200:
Smart Birds

Today, smart birds. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Nicola Clayton is the Professor of Comparative Cognition at Cambridge University. But her students give her the name of a new bird species, Claytonia professorii. That's what she gets for so radically altering our view of familiar birds like crows and jays.

Curious jayClayton has worked on the intelligence of apes and even of humans, but her remarkable work on jays has led to an article in this week's Science magazine. She's exposed amazing similarities between our mental processes and those of birds.

Even before Darwin wrote his very humane book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, we've struggled with the inconvenience of admitting kinship with the animals. We tell each other that animals aren't self conscious, that they live only in the present, and that they don't suffer pain as seriously as we do. 

Clayton's work is one more brick in a great gathering of evidence to the contrary, but it's a very strong brick. Here's a typical experiment: She puts Jays in a cage with two sides. One side is spacious and well supplied with food -- the other, cramped and bare. The birds have free run of both sides for a while, then they're locked up in the unpleasant side -- back and forth over time. 

A well-fed jayThe jays quickly realize that the pleasure of the comfortable side of the cage is only a part of their lives. So they create food stashes in the empty side while they can. They truly do lay up store against winter, just as you and I do.

In fact, the entire survival of jays depends on their ability to store food and remember locations -- even to remember expiration dates. A stored nut will last a long time, but a stored grub will rot after a short time. Jays know how to remember not only where they stashed food, but when. 

For a long time, many animal behaviorists thought this was a hard-wired, or instinctive, ability. Clayton scotches that notion by varying the circumstances of her birds. And there's more:

While she's very cautious about wishfully attributing too much to birds, she does step into controversy in one area. She studies a very human behavior in birds. It is deception. And she decides she has enough evidence to assert that they size one another up -- that they decide which of their companions can be trusted. 

On another matter there's no longer much argument, namely that birds are technologists. They make and use tools. For a long time, we thought -- I thought -- that tool use set us apart. Now it's entirely clear that jays, and other birds, pick up twigs, sometimes even shaping twigs into effective forms, and use them to pry grubs out of holes. They also adapt their methods to new problems that Clayton lays before them.

The Science article ends with a fine irony. It is that Clayton's next step would be dissection to learn about the neurology of her birds' learning. Of course it's now so clear that they are sentient and aware. And one does not sacrifice one's friends.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

V. Morell, Nicky and the Jays. Science, Vol. 315, 23 Feb., 2007. pp. 1074-1075.

N. J. Emery and N. S. Clayton also carefully lay out the pitfalls of interpreting animal behavior as human in: The Behavior of Animals: Mechanisms, Function, and Evolution. Johan J. Bolhuis and Luc-Alain Giraldeau, eds. (Blackwell Pub. Ltd., 2004): See Chapter 13, Animal Cognition. See: this book online, here.

Much more is written on these subjects. For more on tool-making, see B. B. Beck, Animal Tool Behavior. (New York: Garland STPM Press, 1980. For more on altruism see Episodes 720 and 1036, and the references they include.

Another look at our well-fed jay
All photos by JHL