Birds of Belize - Birdbrains - by Bubba

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 14, No. 33            September 15, 2004

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Expressions such 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 them.

    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 the insect.

    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 canvas.    

    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 better.

   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 Earth.

    Does that sound cuckoo to you?
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