Skip to main content
No. 866:
A Smart Thrush

Today, we find creative invention where we would never expect it. 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.

Something very unnerving just happened. I came home and found my wife playing the TV for our dogs and cats. That much was usual. They love the sounds of nature shows.

But as I walked by, something very odd was happening on the TV. A thrush was trying to get a grub out of a hole in a tree. First, the thrush's beak was too wide. It wouldn't fit into the hole. Then the thrush did a most astonishing thing. He flew off and found a dry twig. He broke it off and came back to pry the grub out. No luck. The twig was too short.

So the thrush went back and broke off a longer twig. This time he could poke the grub but he still couldn't get it out. So he went back and broke off a third twig, the same length but curved. Now he worked the twig under the grub and slid him out.

We've all grown up with the idea that humans are the only tool-makers. Now I've just watched a bird function in a completely intelligent way. He not only used tools but selected them as well. Then he actually designed a fairly sophisticated tool and worked with it.

Who hasn't learned how the opposed thumb and prehensile hand set us off from the beasts? But this bird used its prehensile beak to wield a twig with the skill of a painter using a brush.

Now the announcer drops the biggest bombshell. It seems that this is a learned technology -- some birds get the hang of it. Others never do. This isn't dumb instinct. This is inventive creativity of a kind we like to believe is ours alone.

So I think about beasts -- whales who sing, cats who dance for joy or sulk in defeat. I have a dog who rearranges the pillows to make the colors match. Creativity is there.

Of course I've never seen an animal design a rocket or write a book. Our capacity for language lets us build on our inventions in some seemingly unique way. Still, I saw that bird try out one geometrical solution after another to solve a complex configurational problem. I watched unmistakable ingenuity.

Maybe what we share in common with animals is not our worst propensities at all, but our best ones. Dylan Thomas once wrote four lines that've hung upon my ear for forty years. He said,

... animals thick as thieves
On God's rough tumbling grounds
(Hail to His beasthood!).
Beasts who sleep good and thin.

For Thomas, our beasthood is that which is holy within us. And that strikes a chord in me. For, when I am alert, I see the most elemental human trait in animals. I see the very creativity that I once thought was unique to my species.

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

(Theme music)

Gliding through the hallways like a huge gray moth,
Moving like a daemon from an ancient myth,
Never quite a god and never quite a devil,
The cat feigns to cater to our human drivel:
Here nice kitty-kitty, spinster's pride and pet.
(Wasn't that he sunning by her flower pot?)
Now he laps his cream or rubs the hand that feeds him,
Now he's disappeared where his own shadow hides him.
If he comes no more, O burrow in your pillow,
Trembling, meagre mortal, for your weird bedfellow.
Do not think him strayed when by his mystic license
He has merely dwindled to his eerie essence.
He is not encoffined in his claws and fur.
Where he is or is not, tell us you who fear
Never cat alive, so you boast with mocking mouth,
As gliding through the halls weaves a huge gray moth.
Vassar Miller
If I Had Wheels or Love.
Dallas: SMU Press, 1991. pg. 9