11 Surprisingly Smart Birds

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Next time someone tries to put you down by calling you "bird brain," make them think again by introducing them to these 11 wickedly smart avians.

1. Cormorants Make Model Employees

A researcher in the 1970s observed the behavior of cormorants that Chinese fishermen used to catch fish. The birds were only fed after catching seven fish for their human masters, and once they hit that magic number, they would sit pat and refuse to continue working. The cormorants had learned to count to seven, and they used this to their advantage in their unique salary negotiations.

2. Japanese Crows Enjoy Street Food

In urban parts of Japan, crows have been known to drop shelled nuts onto crosswalks for cars to run over, cracking their shells. The birds then wait for red lights before retrieving the exposed meat.

3. Macaws Take Direction Well

Macaws can correctly tell the difference between left and right when trained with positive reinforcement.

4. Crows Never Have to Eat Crow

Crows aren’t the most glamorous birds, but biologists have dubbed them "feathered primates" for their tremendous brainpower and problem-solving skills. In one study, crows were able to memorize and correctly identify images they had been previously shown. When researchers switched the rules of the game to reward the birds for identifying images that didn’t match, they quickly adjusted and answered correctly mid-test.

5. Ravens Are Excellent Meat Cutters

After chasing a raven that was feeding on a piece of frozen raw beef, a researcher found that the bird had made cuts tracing the fat, allowing it to carry the food as one large chunk instead of making multiple trips. This ingenuity showed the raven was able to plan ahead.

6. Blue Tits Skim the Cream

Back when milk was delivered door-to-door, these birds were able to identify what kinds were being delivered based on the colors of the bottle caps. They learned which bottles contained extra-nourishing whole milk, and the birds then breached and drank from those containers.

7. Hummingbirds Know Their Turf

While these speedsters are tiny—they weigh less than a nickel—they make up for it with their massive memories. A hummingbird keeps tabs on every flower in its territory (which can contain up to 1000 different flowers) and remembers which ones are blooming and which ones have nectar.

8. Rooks Can Be The Bigger Bird

Rooks live in large groups and are prone to getting in fights. After squabbles, the birds make up by preening each other or sharing food. The first observations of this behavior surprised biologists, since for years scientists had thought that only primates were capable of this kind of reconciliatory behavior.

9. Pigeons Appreciate Fine Art

In a now-famous study, three researchers discovered that pigeons were able to differentiate between paintings by Picasso and Monet (although they could not tell the difference if the Monets were placed upside-down).

10. Cockatoos Can Cut a Rug

A famous cockatoo has demonstrated the ability to recognize complex musical beats and dance along in time (which requires an intelligent skill known as “beat induction”).

11. Woodpecker Finches Arm Themselves

These birds from the Galapagos Islands have been known to use sticks to impale grubs and other small invertebrates. Once incapacitated, the prey is easily devoured by the weapon-wielding finch.

What's That Thing That Hangs Off a Turkey’s Face?

NCHANT/iStock via Getty Images
NCHANT/iStock via Getty Images

That thing is called a snood. And it's there to let the other turkeys know that its owner is kind of a big deal.

When a male turkey—known as a tom—wants to mate, he faces two hurdles. One is his potential mates, the female turkeys (a.k.a. hens). In the realm of turkey mating, the hens wield the power of choice and the toms have to get a hen's attention and win the opportunity to reproduce. Come mating season, a tom will strut around, gobble, puff out his chest, fan his tail, and drag his wings to attract the hens, who then pick which of the toms they’ll mate with.

The second problem for a tom looking for love is the other toms in the area. They’re all competing for the same limited number of hens. Sometimes a good mating display isn’t enough to win a mate, and toms will attack and fight each other to secure a hen.

This is where the snood comes in. That goofy-looking piece of dangling flesh helps a tom both with choosy hens and with competition from rival males. Having a long snood almost always means that a hen will want to mate with him and that another tom will back down from a fight.

Dudes and their snoods

When two toms are trying to establish dominance, they’ll size each other up. Then they'll either fight, or one will flee.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Richard Buchholz, an animal behaviorist who focuses on turkeys, wanted to figure out which, if any, characteristics of a tom turkey could predict how they fare in dominance fights. That is, did bigger turkeys tend to win more scuffles? Did older ones? He also wanted to see if the turkeys used any of these predictive cues when sizing each other up. He looked at various characteristics of dominant toms that fight and win, and compared them to those of subordinate toms that lose fights or run from them. Of all the characteristics he looked at, only “relaxed snood length” seemed to be a reliable predictor of how a tom would do in bird-vs-bird combat. The dominant males, the ones who won fights and got a choice mate, had longer snoods.

With that in mind, Buchholz looked at how toms reacted to other toms with snoods of varying sizes. The birds tended to avoid confrontation with other males with longer snoods, and wouldn’t even feed near them. A big snood, this suggests, says to the other turkeys that this is a tom you don’t want to tangle with. Buchholz noted that snood length correlates with age, body mass, and testosterone, so, to competitors, the snood could be a good indicator of a tom’s aggressiveness, age/experience, size, and overall condition and fighting ability.

In the snood for love

Once the males have established who’s going to have a chance to mate, the final choice goes to the hen. While the mating display is the main draw for getting a hen to check him out, a tom’s snood helps him out again here.

Like it did for the other males, a tom’s snood signals a lot of information to a female assessing potential mates—it indicates how old and how big he is, and even says something about his health. In another study, Buchholz found that longer-snooded toms carried fewer parasites. If a hen wanted to choose a mate with good genes that might help her offspring grow large, live long, and avoid parasites, a tom’s snood is a good advertisement for his genes. In that study, hens showed a clear preference for toms with longer snoods. In another experiment years later, Buchholz found that healthy hens again showed a strong preference for long snoods and that hens with their own parasite problems were less picky about snood length and checked out more potential mates—perhaps, Buchholz thinks, because the hens recognized their own susceptibility to infection and were willing to invest more time searching for a tom with genes for parasite resistance that would complement their own—but still showed some preference for longer ones.

While a snood might look goofy to us, for a turkey, it’s integral to the mating game, signaling to other toms that they should get out of his way and letting hens know that he’s got what they’re looking for.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Journey to the Monarch Mosh Pit

iStock/Spondylolithesis
iStock/Spondylolithesis

Each fall, millions of migrating monarchs return to Mexico to wait out winter. The gathering makes Woodstock look like a business conference. Here’s how they get there.

Mosh Pit

In the mountains of central Mexico, the butterflies crowd on the branches of oyamel fir trees. The trees provide a perfect microclimate that prevents the butterflies from getting too hot or cold.

Texas Toast

After winter, the butterflies fly north to Texas in search of milkweed, where they lay their eggs. Many adults will die here; northbound monarchs generally live only three to seven weeks.

Juice Cleanse

One of the reasons monarchs love milkweed? Protection. As caterpillars, they absorb the toxins in the plant, which makes them less tasty to birds.

Connecting Flight

Eventually, a new generation of butterflies will make its way north to Canada. It takes multiple generations of butterflies to reach their final, most northerly destination.

Dine and Dash

On the way, butterflies will eat practically anything. Sure, there’s nectar—but they’ll also slurp the salts in mud.

Catching Air

When fall returns, a new generation of monarchs rides the air currents more than 3000 miles back to Mexico. They navigate by calibrating their body clocks with the position of the sun. (An internal magnetic compass helps them navigate on cloudy days.)

Latitude Adjustment

Monarchs “are one of the few creatures on Earth that can orient themselves both in latitude and longitude,” The New York Times reports—a feat sailors wouldn’t accomplish until the 1700s.

Southern Charm

Miraculously, each generation of southbound monarchs lives up to eight months—six times longer than their northbound descendants. Their longevity might have something to do with a process known as reproductive diapause (which is a fancy way of saying that the insects won’t breed until winter ends).

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER