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Thread: Bird-brain intelligence?

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    Bird-brain intelligence?

    I've heard a lot lately about certain tests that supposedly show a few birds with tiny brains but great intelligence. But as far as I know the tests all consist of actions like pulling on certain colored pegs, and other things that could just as easily be instinctive or conditioned behaviors.

    How accurate and reliable are these tests? And do they really show intelligence?
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    I can't speak for the accuracy of the tests, but I believe that some birds are probably remarkably intelligent, just not always in the way we think of intelligence. I think you could make a comparison to the intelligence of some cephalopods, where they exhibit signs of intelligence but their cognition is alien to what we think of as cognition.

    Of course, maybe they are just fooling us into thinking they may be intelligent. Calling someone a "bird-brain" had to originate with at least some nugget of truth.

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    Many of the tests involve problem solving. It is not so much the fact that they can pull on a peg, but that they do it in the correct sequence

    BBC article
    New Caledonian crows have given scientists yet another display of their tool-using prowess.

    Scientists from New Zealand's University of Auckland have found that the birds are able to use three tools in succession to reach some food.

    The crows, which use tools in the wild, have also shown other problem-solving behaviour, but this find suggests they are more innovative than was thought.

    The research is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

    The team headed to the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, the home of Corvus moneduloides. They are the only birds known to craft and use tools in the wild.

    The discovery that they whittle branches into hooks and tear leaves into barbed probes to extract food from hard-to-reach nooks astounded scientists, who had previously thought that ability to fashion tools was unique to primates.

    And further research in the laboratory and the field has revealed that New Caledonian crows are also innovative problem solvers, often rivalling primates. Experiments have shown that the birds can craft new tools out of unfamiliar materials, as well as use a number of tools in succession.
    The other evidence of bird intelligence is in communication skills. Not only bird song (which can be complex), in some birds, such as parrots, the ability to learn human communication and show evidence of abstract thought. The most famous is probably the work of Irene Pepperberg with Alex, the Gray parrot (NY Times article).
    For the last 22 years, Dr. Pepperberg has been teaching Alex, who is 23, to do complex tasks of the sort that only a few nonhuman species -- chimpanzees, for instance -- have been able to perform. But unlike those other creatures, Alex can talk, or at least, he can vocalize. And, Dr. Pepperberg says, Alex doesn't just imitate human speech, as other parrots do -- Alex can think. His actions are not just an instinctive response, she says, but rather a result of reasoning and choice.

    Assertions like Dr. Pepperberg's are at the center of a highly emotional debate about whether thought is solely the domain of humans, or whether it can exist in other animals. Although many people are intrigued by the idea that animals may be capable of some form of abstract reasoning and communication, scientists often ascribe what looks like clever behavior to mimicry or rote learning or even, in some cases, unconscious cues by a trainer.
    ...

    Dr. Pepperberg, listing Alex's accomplishments, said he could identify 50 different objects and recognize quantities up to 6; that he could distinguish 7 colors and 5 shapes, and understand "bigger," "smaller," "same" and "different," and that he was learning the concepts of "over" and "under." Hold a tray of different shapes and colored objects in front of him, as Dr. Pepperberg was doing the other day as a reporter watched, and he can distinguish an object by its color, shape and the material it is made of. (Dr. Pepperberg said she frequently changed objects to make sure Alex wasn't just memorizing things and that she structured experiments to avoid involuntary cues from his examiner).
    I find it interesting that the birds that seem to be the most intelligent, like crows and parrots, are also the most social in the wild.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    But as far as I know the tests all consist of actions like pulling on certain colored pegs, and other things that could just as easily be instinctive or conditioned behaviors.
    Aren't most human behaviors pretty close to "conditioned"?
    Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

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    I seem to remember a crow that would dunk food into little dipping trays emulating people eating McNuggets. Of course those McNuggets are contributing to my dimwittedness since I seem to have more cholesterol than blood these days.

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    I find it interesting that the birds that seem to be the most intelligent, like crows and parrots, are also the most social in the wild.
    Do you know how the intelligence of some of the birds of prey compares to the birds you mention?

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    Quote Originally Posted by primummobile View Post
    Do you know how the intelligence of some of the birds of prey compares to the birds you mention?
    I have no scientific studies (they may exist, I just don't know), but the ones I've met don't seem very bright. And yes, I've met some, at the park where I volunteer, they have a wild animal rehab center, and they have a number of permanent resident hawks and owls.

    A little googling found this discussion from a bird forum.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    I have no scientific studies (they may exist, I just don't know), but the ones I've met don't seem very bright. And yes, I've met some, at the park where I volunteer, they have a wild animal rehab center, and they have a number of permanent resident hawks and owls.

    A little googling found this discussion from a bird forum.
    Thanks. That seems to square with what I thought. I've been to the Pittsburgh Aviary a few times and the birds of prey, while impressive to look at, always seemed rather uninteresting compared to the other birds.

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    Quote Originally Posted by primummobile View Post
    Do you know how the intelligence of some of the birds of prey compares to the birds you mention?
    Going by predatory rather than bird of prey, owls are generally considered dumber than bricks by animal trainers. If they're really good they can learn one trick per owl, so a movie requiring an owl that performs five tricks, it actually takes at least five owls..
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    Quote Originally Posted by HenrikOlsen View Post
    Going by predatory rather than bird of prey, owls are generally considered dumber than bricks by animal trainers. If they're really good they can learn one trick per owl, so a movie requiring an owl that performs five tricks, it actually takes at least five owls..
    If you look at an owl skull (image of Great Horned owl skull), I think it is apparent why. A majority of their skull is eyes; not much room left for brains.
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    Going by predatory rather than bird of prey, owls are generally considered dumber than bricks by animal trainers. If they're really good they can learn one trick per owl, so a movie requiring an owl that performs five tricks, it actually takes at least five owls..

    Really? That's pretty interesting. I guess that looks can be deceiving. They look wise.
    Last edited by primummobile; 2012-Jul-16 at 01:35 PM. Reason: Forgot quote

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    Quote Originally Posted by primummobile View Post
    Really? That's pretty interesting. I guess that looks can be deceiving. They look wise.
    As I understand it, it is generally thought that the belief they are wise comes from their large eyes. In any case, it is a very ancient myth, at least back to Ancient Greece, where the owl was associated with Athena
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    As I understand it, it is generally thought that the belief they are wise comes from their large eyes. In any case, it is a very ancient myth, at least back to Ancient Greece, where the owl was associated with Athena
    And perpetuated by the owl in the Tootsie-Pop commercials!

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    Quote Originally Posted by primummobile View Post
    And perpetuated by the owl in the Tootsie-Pop commercials!
    LoL

    And here I thought it was Owl in Winnie the Pooh.
    Last edited by Swift; 2012-Jul-16 at 09:23 PM. Reason: typo
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    Have you ever seen a featherless owl? Without all that big fluff to bulk it out, it's kinda creepy, giant eyes protruding from a tiny head, on a pencil-thin neck.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    Have you ever seen a featherless owl? Without all that big fluff to bulk it out, it's kinda creepy, giant eyes protruding from a tiny head, on a pencil-thin neck.
    No, I haven't. Where have you seen a featherless owl?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    LoL

    On here I thought it was Owl in Winnie the Pooh.
    Well, that Owl was undoubtedly first.

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    Quote Originally Posted by primummobile View Post
    No, I haven't. Where have you seen a featherless owl?
    When I was a kid, I went to a science camp at IIRC Talcot Mountain Science Center, and among other things they had an owl display which included a stuffed and mounted Great Horned owl sans feathers. It gave me nightmares for several days after.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Swift View Post
    LoL

    And here I thought it was Owl in Winnie the Pooh.
    As I recall (and its been a loooong time), Owl was kind of a nitwit. Thought Eyore's tail was a doorbell pull.

    Corvids (crows & kin) can be scary smart. Researchers in Seattle did a study wearing masks which they conditioned the crows to be wary of. This information somehow got passed on to a new generation of crows who hadn't seen the masks before.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    When I was a kid, I went to a science camp at IIRC Talcot Mountain Science Center, and among other things they had an owl display which included a stuffed and mounted Great Horned owl sans feathers. It gave me nightmares for several days after.
    Hey, so did I!

    Really cool place.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Trebuchet View Post
    Corvids (crows & kin) can be scary smart. Researchers in Seattle did a study wearing masks which they conditioned the crows to be wary of. This information somehow got passed on to a new generation of crows who hadn't seen the masks before.
    I read a review of that and similar studies (probably in Science News, don't remember for sure). That review also mentioned a study, I think it was at Cornell, where they were trying to do a census of crows in this town. If I remember the details correctly, the way they did the census was to drive around town to certain spots, offer food, and count the number of crows that showed up. Problem was, the crows learned to recognize the car, and would start following it around to look for food. For months after the study ended, the researcher still had crows following their car around. And, other people with the same color and model car started reporting crows would come up to them looking for food.
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    Wink

    This may be one of the reasons so many of the crows at Cornell have large tags on their wings. At least now you can tell which one is which and don't accidentally double (or multiple) count them.
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    It seems that for every story you hear about animal intelligence (even from controlled experiments) there is some scientist who renders the opinion that it's "not really intelligence" that is seen. Someone should study those guys.

    Noam Chomsky is well known for rendering the opinion that only humans have no language skills. And yet chimpanzees for example have a highly developed order social structure. Doesn't that require some level of communication, through facial expressions, body language and noises? Some type of primate, I can't remember the species but probably a chimp, was able to at least learn grammar in the sense of being able to choose an appropriate order for symbols (such as nouns and verbs). Are not such capabilities a foundation for language? When I hear "only humans can do this" now I am skeptical.

    The crows are pretty smart and highly social. I hear them yakking every morning. They sound awful and just seem to say the same thing over and over, but lately I've begun to notice that each one's voice is slightly different. I wonder if they are saying "I'm here". They all look very similar so maybe their unique noises are a way of announcing their presence and who they are.

    I know this is stupid, but it's kind of funny. When the babies are hungry, they repeat a high-pitched sound that sounds like "maaa, maaa, maaa". Those young voices are distinct as well. The young fly around in an area and are feed by their parents for some period of time until they learn(?) how to fend for themselves. Since these youngsters are quite mobile and numerous and since their parents have to leave them to find food, it makes senses that their voices should serve as identification.

    The crows have different ways of coming by food. They are largely scavengers so they find road kill and picnic debris in a nearby park (which they sometimes soften in our birdbath). They get into the trash barrels at the curb on pickup day and make a big mess looking for and finding food. Another annoying trick is digging up your turf with their claws to find bugs and worms. I suspect some of these behaviors are passed along from generation to generation. They seem able to judge your behavior and decide how much of a threat you might be. If you reliably "act nice" they allow you to get pretty close, whereas other birds will fly when they detect any movement.

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    There seems to be a lot of variant "no true Scotsman" thinking by many people when it comes to non-human intelligence, "They can do X? But that doesn't require real intelligence...".
    Instead of looking at intelligence as a continuum where we're simply furthest up of the species we know, they want everything else to be on a different scale from us.
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    Quote Originally Posted by TooMany View Post
    It seems that for every story you hear about animal intelligence (even from controlled experiments) there is some scientist who renders the opinion that it's "not really intelligence" that is seen. Someone should study those guys.

    Noam Chomsky is well known for rendering the opinion that only humans have no language skills. And yet chimpanzees for example have a highly developed order social structure. Doesn't that require some level of communication, through facial expressions, body language and noises?
    I don't know for sure, but I suspect that it would be close to a universal opinion among scientists that at least the mammals and birds all have some sort of communication ability. As you say, there has to be some sort of communication for there to be a social structure. It might be as simple as a bark or chirp that means "danger" or "mate with me".

    I suspect where the disagreement comes is with whether any non-human animals have "language". And don't ask what the difference is; I have somewhat of a feel, I suspect it has to do with structure and flexibility and complexity of the communicated concepts; but that's my rough guess.

    A further disagreement probably also comes from the question as to whether any non-human animals have "intelligence". I suspect this is related to the language issue, but may not exactly match up.
    Last edited by Swift; 2012-Jul-18 at 02:23 AM. Reason: typos
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    Quote Originally Posted by HenrikOlsen View Post
    There seems to be a lot of variant "no true Scotsman" thinking by many people when it comes to non-human intelligence, "They can do X? But that doesn't require real intelligence...".
    Instead of looking at intelligence as a continuum where we're simply furthest up of the species we know, they want everything else to be on a different scale from us.
    Again, I'm no expert on the field, (though I have a lot of interest in it going back to college courses in linguistics in the late 70s) but that is my take on the question of non-human language and intelligence. I don't think it is a black and white thing, and even among the extremes in humans, it is a continuum.

    I think a lot of work with primate language learning (like sign language) indicates that even if human-like language is an unnatural "condition" in non-human primates, that there exists in the brains enough of the fundamental abilities that they can pick up such languages as a learned ability.

    I think we are also finding that the more we look, the more kinds of animals have some pretty complex communication skills, even if not what we might consider language. The work, for example, with elephants, showed that once you start listening at very low frequencies (below normal human hearing) that there are some very complex calls going on, which we are only beginning to decipher.

    As far as intelligence, there is no single "kind" of intelligence. Again, even among humans, a single parameter measure of intelligence, like IQ, is close to worthless. Saying, for example, that a chimp has the intelligence of a five year old child, is rather meaningless, since in some ways their intelligence exceeds that, and in other ways it will never be that good.
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    And then you get things like the cephalopod communication through rapid color signals that we have no simple way of reproducing well enough to do any reasonable experiments.
    They can be scary smart as well, Big Don mentioned one that would climb out of its own aquarium and raid the others for fish it would bring back, eat, then hide the remains.
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    Quote Originally Posted by HenrikOlsen View Post
    And then you get things like the cephalopod communication through rapid color signals that we have no simple way of reproducing well enough to do any reasonable experiments.
    They can be scary smart as well, Big Don mentioned one that would climb out of its own aquarium and raid the others for fish it would bring back, eat, then hide the remains.
    I suspect that tool use has an synergistic effect on the evolution of intelligence. That is a tool can be such an advantage that the ability to use tools is highly selected. For birds, the problem is that they don't have hands as such. Maybe hands are really the basis of develop of intelligence at the human level. Primates had hands because they lived in trees and picked fruit. Dexterity and color vision became important. With hands, tool use becomes practical and with tool use, survival of the best tool users.

    However, then you have to explain why chimps, although able to use tools a little, did not progress further at the same time hominids were evolving. One possibility is that whatever additional ability that they might have developed was a detriment because they came into competition with superior tool users. So perhaps they found a niche in which they were safe from the evolving hominids because they did not constitute a threat to them. This reasoning explains why all hominid lines except homo sapiens are now extinct.

    Now cephalopods have plenty of hands, but as far as I know they do not use tools. Perhaps there is something about the undersea environment that limits the usefulness of tools. Dolphins are smart but lack appendages beyond flippers and a tail. They may have evolved intelligence somewhat the way dogs have. They are highly social and they hunt in packs.

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    Quote Originally Posted by TooMany View Post
    Now cephalopods have plenty of hands, but as far as I know they do not use tools. Perhaps there is something about the undersea environment that limits the usefulness of tools.
    Octopi can learn to use tools (opening jars and crab traps and the like), perhaps we simply haven't caught them at it much in their native environment. The Veined Octopus used coconut shells and seashells to build shelters (in the wild, that is, untrained).
    Last edited by Noclevername; 2012-Jul-18 at 02:10 AM. Reason: added clarification
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    Any discussion of intelligence really need to look at extelligence as well.
    Language as a means to store information about the world in excess of immediate requirements is what really drove human intelligence up.
    Tool use isn't enough.

    The real trick humans have that put us ahead of the others isn't tool use or learning, it's teaching.
    Active teaching, not just by show and imitate, but by talking, often by making up stories to explain connections.

    It's the skill of adding to the intelligence/knowledge of others. Which incidentally includes other animals.

    It's because we can teach new tricks to old dogs that we're ahead.
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