as ‘Birdbrain,' ‘Booby,' and ‘Dumb as a Dodo' imply that birds are not
intelligent. I've had similar problems with my name.
Some avian behaviors appear to support the impression
of stupid. Species that evolved on remote islands with no significant
predators, such as Belize's Booby Bird on Half Moon Caye, can seem
absurdly oblivious to humans, a large mistake for big birds that go well
with rice and beans. The Red Footed Booby of Belize, except for their
protection by government, would have gone the way of two other extinct
island species, the Great Auk of the North Atlantic and the Dodo of
Mauritius, who were both killed by sailors seeking fresh meat to
subsidize their seafaring diet. In all three cases, individual birds
seemed unable to respond to the harm humans intended them, and most
perceive this as not smart.
The existence of these stereotypic behaviors should
not obscure the highly refined and adaptive behaviors that birds exhibit
in other situations.
An array of avian behaviors, awe inspiring to observe
in nature, make one wonder how intelligent birds must be to perform
Humans are tool-making and tool-using specialists.
However, the common assumption that only humans have the intelligence to
create and use tools is false. Birds also make tools or use selected
objects as tools to obtain a goal. For example, the Belizean Brown Jay
has been seen catching insects using miniature tools they constructed
from thin pieces of wood, thorns, or cactus spines.
Several species of Belizean Woodpeckers
also use tools. First, the bird selects a twig, and straightens it by
breaking off tiny pieces. Then, the bird holds the twig in its beak,
pokes it into cracks, and scrapes it around the nooks and crannies until
an insect is flushed out. After quickly tucking the twig away, it devours
While fishing in Ambergris's lagoons, the Green Heron
uses its own feathers like a fly fisherman to lure fish into its grasp.
Using tools is just a small indicator of intelligence.
Creativeness and design are more advanced indicators. The male Silk
Bowerbird colorfully paints the walls of his bower after he finds some
kind of fibrous material that can be used as a brush. He then finds a
color producing substance, such as berries or charcoal that can be used
as paint. After applying a color, he steps back and admires his work,
much like an artist pausing to evaluate his
Awareness of prenatal care is another unique trait,
displayed by Belize's Acorn Woodpecker, which stores away bone fragments
prior to the breeding season, for use as a dietary supplement of calcium
during egg formation.
In building their homes, birds can manifest the skills
of a tailor, mason, carpenter or other human craftsman. Birds also have
capabilities that are superior to those of humans. Using information
found in their environment, migrating and homing birds can determine
precise direction and passage of time (the "avian compass" and the "avian
clock"). They can use natural information to "read" barometric
pressure, wind patterns, the Earth's magnetism, polarized light patterns,
faint odors, movements of the sun, patterns and movements of the stars,
and infra sound (a sound that birds can hear but humans cannot), as
subtle landmarks. They use these natural cues to find their way much
The avian world is much older than ours. They are gifted
with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained. They are
not our brethren or our underlings; they are another nation, caught with
us in the net of life, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of
Does that sound cuckoo to you?