10/09/2021 at 9:03 AM CEST
Scientific research on birds has advanced so far in the past two decades that scholars and Jennifer Ackerman, who has just published in Spain ‘The behavior of the birds’ (Ariel), assure -as he has done in an interview with the . agency- that “they are capable of the mental prowess of primates & rdquor ;.
QUESTION.- Do you attribute to birds abilities that were believed to be only human or of some mammals such as chimpanzees or killer whales. Which one do you think is the most surprising?
ANSWER.- Some birds seem to understand what goes on in the mind of another bird, a highly sophisticated social and emotional skill that some consider the basis of empathy. An example is the Eurasian jay: the male courts his mate by bringing him food, which is very common in the bird world, but what is intriguing is that the male makes decisions about what kind of treatment to offer his mate based not on his own tastes but in what she has eaten before. Like people, birds prefer a variety of foods and this male jay keeps track of what she has eaten and her feeding switching preferences to suit her.
Q.- Are they, then, intelligent?
A.- Quite a lot more than we imagine, capable of mental feats that we attributed only to primates. The brain of birds may be small, but it is dense in neurons and highly efficient. They can think logically and reasoning at the same level as young children. They can solve complex problems that they have not faced before. They can make and use their own sophisticated tools. They can remember the past and plan for the future. They understand the principle of cause and effect.
Q.- Are they distinguished by their individuality, like people?
A.- Yes, they have individual characteristics, modes of behavior, “personalities & rdquor; if you want to call it that. Even in the same species there is a wide range of traits. Some may be shy; others, bold. Some may be leaders; others, followers.
Q.- What do you mean by “mental flexibility of birds & rdquor ;?
A.- The ability to do something new to change behavior and thus face new circumstances and new challenges; take advantage of a new food source, for example, or discover how to exploit it, or explore new objects and situations. Corvids, songbirds, and parrots have a remarkable ability to learn a new pattern of behavior. Behavioral flexibility is an indicator of intelligence.
Q.- Can we talk about “talk & rdquor; and “love & rdquor; in the birds?
A.- Better to talk about “communication & rdquor; and “relation & rdquor ;. Some birds have high forms of communication, which include some of the elements of language. The alarm calls of the black-capped chickadee, the New Holland honey bee, the Siberian jay, and other species have very specific information that other birds understand: What kind of predator is coming, how dangerous it is, and what exactly it is doing. They learn their songs in the same way that we learn language, through a complex process called “vocal learning”, which is rare in the animal world. It involves listening to a tutor, imitating, and practicing until the song is correct.
As for love, it is a human concept, and we don’t know what birds feel, but many species – if not most – form powerful relationships with companions and members of the flock. Crows even seem to experience something akin to empathy. They respond to emotional states of other ravens, especially companions or allies. If a bird is the victim of conflict, his companion or ally will acknowledge his suffering and comfort him by grooming him or curling up with their beaks, the equivalent of a kiss.
Q.- Can you create “works of art & rdquor ;?
A.- In Australia and New Guinea pergoleros build artistic creations. Males build special branches to court females. They are small arches or other structures made of sticks and adorned with a variety of colors or shiny objects. I once found one of these enradamos to be filled with artistically matched green glass, screws, pieces of jewelry, and clear glass marbles. Scientists have described the arbor of another pergolero built near a stained glass artist’s house that contained small pieces of stained glass that the bird had classified by color, as a mosaic.
Q.- Why does a mother kill her own offspring and another selflessly cares for the offspring of another as if they were her own?
A.- That shows how much variety there is in breeding in the animal world. In the case of the ‘eclectic parrot’, mothers sometimes kill their male chicks when their cave-nests can become flooded. Because the female ‘eclectic parrot’ develop more rapidly than the males, the mother expels the male chick from the nest-cave and thus can focus her energy on raising the female chick, thereby increasing their chances of reproduction. As for mothers who take care of the brood of others, it is not uncommon. In the bird world there is a lot of cooperative feeding, the birds come together to raise the young. There are also parasitic birds such as the common cuckoo that dump their eggs in the nest of other species such as the common warbler, so that when the eggs hatch, the mother will not notice the difference between the cuckoo’s chick and her own and will feed the cuckoo many sometimes to the detriment of their own progeny.
Q.- Are there prejudices in the scientific community that have affected knowledge about birds?
A.- For a long time the majority of ornithologists were men and most of the studies were carried out in the northern hemisphere. That threw the understanding of what female birds were capable of doing. I grew up thinking that only the males were the ones that offered loud and elaborate songs. The females were noticeably calmer. Now that birds are being studied in the southern hemisphere, especially in the tropics, it has been discovered that in two species of songbirds the females sing and their songs are as elaborate as those of the males.
Q.- Is there much left to know about the communication skills of birds?
A.- We have only scratched the surface of the communication of the birds. The honey man from New Holland has a wake-up call with dozens of items that mean specific things. I am sure that the calls and songs of other birds are equally sophisticated and complex. There are around 10,000 species of birds, and a long road ahead.
Q.- A curiosity at what age did you see the movie “Los Pájaros & rdquor; and what did you feel?
R.- (Laughter) I saw it when I was 6 or 7 years old, and I couldn’t bear to see it & mldr; I was reminded of this movie in Australia during the song magpies breeding season. About ten percent of male magpies are very aggressive protecting their nests and attack people with great violence, plummeting.
Main photo: Jennifer Ackerman, with an owl. Photo: Sofia Runardotter.
It may interest you: The regent honeymaker is about to be extinguished because he cannot learn his love song