The tem ‘bird brain’ is used to describe someone who has acted stupidly. But are birds really dumb? We assume, because of their size, that they have small brains and aren’t very smart. However this assumption is not correct. On Thursday, August 7th I watched WTTW/World at 7:00 PM (www.wttw.org/nova). What follows is taken from that program.

In one college course I took (1960’s) we were taught that what separated man from the other animals was our ability to use tools. This falsehood was put to rest by Jane Goodall when she observed chimps using sticks to ‘fish’ termites out of decaying logs. They dipped the stick into a hole, pulled it out with a termite attached, and ate it. Since then, other scientists have observed that other animals also use tools.

The main focus of the program was a raven. They tested it by arranging problems that required the successful completion of several steps in proper order to get food. In one test, a piece of meat was in a long narrow container. You could only get it out by using a long stick. The long stick was in a container that had openings on the top, but could not be pulled open. To get the stick you needed three rocks. The three rocks were in three cages. To get the rocks you needed to use a small stick tied to a string. The whole process was eight steps in length. The raven studied the problem; got the small stick off the string; used the small stick to push each rock out of its cage; dropped each rock into the container with the long stick, causing the bottom of the cage to open, allowing the long stick to drop out. Then the raven used the long stick to get the food.

As if this wasn’t enough, the next test consisted of four mechanically operated locks. The raven passed with flying colors. Then the scientists changed the locks so that the raven only needed to open the last two to get the food. The raven flew up, looked at the locks, opened only the last two, and flew away with the food.

Scientists have concluded that the important measurement is the mass of the brain in relation to the mass of the body. The raven’s brain is twice as big as its body mass. And they believe it has developed that way because the raven lives in an environment where understanding, flexibility and planning are rewarded; an environment where food is scarce. Survival of the smartest.

 

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