“Bird brain” is a colloquial insult that most people have heard before, but it looks like it may not be an insult at all. It’s easy to assume that because birds have such small skulls, this automatically equates to a low level of intelligence, but behavioral research shows an entirely different story.
In a clip from BBC’s series Inside the Animal Mind, Dr. Alex Taylor shows us how we’ve been underestimating the intelligence of birds, specifically crows in this case. Dr. Taylor set up an incredibly complicated, 8-step puzzle as a sort of intelligence test for a wild crow. The crow in question was held in captivity for only a short time – less than three months – so he had never encountered puzzles like this before. Dr. Taylor believes that the test presented to this crow is one of the most difficult animal intelligence tests ever constructed.
For those who have studied the intelligence of crows, it should come as no surprise that the crow manages to finish the puzzle in very little time. Professor John Marzluff performs research on urban birds at the University of Washington’s Aviation Conservation Lab, and he likes to jokingly refer to crows as tiny flying monkeys. In an interview with CBS News, Marzluff said, “neurally, mentally, cognitively, they’re a flying monkey,” and goes on to explain that they really don’t deserve the dark, cynical reputation they have earned from representations in folklore and modern media (think Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds).
Crows are actually quite friendly creatures, and they can recognize and remember familiar human faces. This allows them to form relationships with particularly kind humans, like 8-year-old Gabi Mann and her mother Lisa who earned the affections of a group of crows that spend time in their Seattle, WA backyard. Gabi has recorded finding over 70 trinkets on the bird feeder in her backyard, brought to her by the crows she adorably considers to be her friends. They leave her things like earrings and other small pieces of jewelry, but Marzluff says this is probably more about ensuring that Gabi doesn’t stop putting out food for the crows than it is about pure affection. He does go on to say that this behavior is part of a courtship process that crows and their relatives, ravens and magpies, have been performing for ages, and this courtship often leads to very strong bonds between these birds and their humans. Gabi may not be so far off in assuming that these crows consider her a friend of sorts if the relationship persists! Marzlaff believes that once crows have marked a human as kind and friendly, that human is marked in their memory for life.
The reason crows possess such a high level of intelligence and such strong skills in recognition and memory is because of the relative size of their brain compared to the size of their body. A crow’s brain is about the size of a human thumb, which puts them on par with primates for intelligence. Don’t believe it? Just watch the crow in the video below!