Smart Birds Make Vitamins, Sculpt Tools

(Last updated on: January 22, 2017)

Smart birds - greater vasa parrotSmart birds are continuing to surprise both bird-watchers and animal psychologists.

The smartest birds are thought to be as intelligent as the smartest of animals, including dolphins, whales, great apes and probably some people as well. And they don’t have to attend a human-run school, either!

This blog discusses smart birds who show amazing skills both in the wild and in captivity, including in some cases a capacity for analytical reasoning.

Animals Have Nutritional Deficiencies

Just like people, animals need vitamins and minerals to sustain their health.

We have previously discussed Clara Davis’ famous study showing that young children, left to themselves, instinctively choose to eat a well-balanced diet (see Science Speculation section in my earlier blog Why Diet Drinks Don’t Help You Diet). As adults we tend to ignore our inner voices and instead use advertising and word-of-mouth to decide when we need to bolster our normal foods by taking additional vitamins and supplements.

Animals seem to have built-in knowledge of what they need to eat for their health. This is the sort of behavior we call instinct rather than intelligence. It’s well known that animals will visit salt licks or mineral licks and in some cases eat mineral-rich dirt to acquire calcium, magnesium and other elements. Thus a basic element of survival for many animals is the ability to seek out animal minerals and animal vitamins.

Birds are also motivated to seek out minerals, especially calcium that they need to produce eggs with strong shells. However, we will now meet one of the truly smart birds, a parrot that not only finds but also manufactures its own dietary supplement.

Smart Birds: Greater Vasa Parrots

Our newest champion among smart birds is the Greater Vasa Parrot, whose handsome face and beak appear at the beginning of this blog.

This parrot is normally a light charcoal gray, although the females show starkly different coloration during mating season. It is a big bird – 20 inches (50 cm) from head to tail!

Greater vasa parrots are not normally kept as pets. They are active by nature and so large that they need a lot of space to fly, stretch and play. They are extremely vigorous eaters: one is advised not to try hand-feeding them because their feeding response is so aggressive. (Ouch!)

The greater vasa parrot is native to Madagascar and the nearby Comoros Islands. Although they have been observed in the wild their behavior is not well understood. For that reason, a recent study of 10 parrots at the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park in UK yielded unexpected and interesting information about these smart birds.

Smart Birds as Compounding Pharmacists

When mating season approaches, these parrots naturally seek out sources of calcium to strengthen their eggshells. These are typically sea shells or the pits of fruit such as dates.

You might expect only the females to bulk up with calcium but in fact the males seek out this mineral even more than do the females. The reason appears to be that as part of the mating ritual, males regurgitate food to feed the female; thus the female in fact gets the dietary benefit of the male’s foraging work. The female controls the mating process in these birds, which is appropriate since she apparently knows when she needs more calcium in order to safely lay eggs.

However, acquiring calcium is not easy for these birds. The parrots have to nibble the shells or date pits with their beaks, which causes beak wear and may also be uncomfortable for them.

Megan Lambert, Amanda Seed and Katie Slocombe are three psychologists at the University of York and the University of St Andrews in UK who recently reported new discoveries about these parrots.

The researchers spent eight months at UK’s Lincolnshire Wildlife Park observing and filming a group of ten greater vasa parrots. They found that five of the ten birds used pebbles or date pits as tools to process cockle shells to obtain calcium. Sometimes they would scrape the shells to obtain a fine powder, which they would then lick. (The second of two videos posted by the researchers begins with a sequence in which a parrot uses a pebble to scrape inside a shell, then seems to lick the shell before picking up the pebble to continue work.) The birds would also use a date pit as a wedge to break off small pieces of shell that they could then eat.

This report is the first observation of tool use by these smart birds. More importantly, it’s the first known instance of any animal using tools to produce a dietary supplement. The fact that the parrots have alleviated their problem of beak wear is yet another bonus. Smart birds, indeed!

Smart Birds: New Caledonian Crows

The family of smart birds has yet another member worthy of our attention.

The New Caledonian Crow is, as the name indicates, native to New Caledonia, a group of islands between and to the north of Australia and New Zealand. A former colony of France, at present New Caledonia is a “special collectivity” gradually acquiring full independence from its parent.

Smart birds - New Caledonian Crow

New Caledonian Crow

This crow is more moderately sized than the vasa parrot: the New Caledonian crow is about 16 inches (40 cm) in length, similar in size to the house crow but chunkier. In its home territory it is commonly called the “qua-qua,” a name that resembles its distinctive cry.

Many animals are able to use tools, especially for acquiring food. Apes and monkeys in particular often use animal tools in the form of sticks to forage for termites or honey. Similarly, a number of smart birds are known to probe crevices with various sticks in order to extract grubs for food. This crow is already famous among animal psychologists for behavior that goes far beyond tool use and rivals the analytical reasoning shown by primates: the use of “meta-tools”, in which one tool is used to obtain or manipulate another; and the creation of tools from material (metal wire) that the bird had never before encountered.

The newest work shows that New Caledonian crows not only select and use tools, but they specifically fabricate the tool shapes that best serve their purposes. And the technology used to observe these crows in the wild is almost as fascinating as the results that were found.

Smart Birds as Tool Fabricators

The study of New Caledonian crows was conducted by Jolyon Troscianko, a bioscientist at the University of Birmingham and Christian Rutz, a zoologist at the University of Oxford, both in UK.

The researchers noted that although these birds are well known for using specialized tools, there was almost no scientific data on how they constructed them, due to the fact that they are shy and difficult to observe in the wild. Therefore the scientists assembled miniature video cameras that they could attach beneath the tail feathers of a bird.

This information got my attention and probably grabs yours as well. The universities and the New Caledonian government both gave ethical approval to the researchers; however, the birds themselves didn’t get to vote on what would be attached to their bodies!

The details in the report show that the scientists tried their best to treat the birds according to some version of the Golden Rule. They trapped nineteen crows and equipped them with video cameras that would record their behavior for several days using built-in batteries. The cameras were limited to less than 5% of each bird’s weight and attached using rubber tubing that deteriorated in about one week, allowing the cameras to fall off. The cameras parted company from the birds after 3 to 15 days in these experiments. The video equipment fell to the forest floor and since each one incorporated a VHF radio tag, the researchers could then retrieve it.

Using this amazing technology, basically a Crow GoPro, the scientists were able to collect videos from ten different birds, a total of more than ten hours of useful video footage. In these videos they found four of the crows using tools extensively. They estimated that in general, almost 20% of foraging behavior by these birds involves the use of tools.

The videos also recorded the birds manufacturing hooked sticks for retrieving insect food from narrow places. A bird would select a Y-shaped stick and bite off the base of the Y and most of one of its arms. This left a long stick with a V-shaped bend at one end. The bird would then trim the end of the stick to create a sharp hook that could drag reluctant grubs out of their hiding places. It took only about a minute, start to finish, for a crow to create an optimized food-fetching tool.

Both the observation of this smart bird’s tool fabrication and the video technology used make this study especially noteworthy.

Smart Birds: Their Place in the Hierarchy of Intelligence

You might say, OK, so these are smart birds. But they are still “bird brains,” aren’t they? And aren’t my dog, and my cat, and even my pony a lot smarter?

Let’s take a quick look at the hierarchy of intelligence among our fellow creatures.

We need to start with a caution: Intelligence is very hard to define, especially when the animal we are studying can’t talk to us or (usually) fill in multiple-choice questionnaires. Worse than that, even when you restrict the test arena to humans, there are serious questions about the validity of all measures of intelligence. (See the discussion of psychologist Allan Edmund Edwards in the Science Speculation section of my earlier blog, Dumb and Dumber: Our Declining IQ.)

Nevertheless, when the media periodically gets excited about one smart animal or another, it’s a fascinating question to try to compare the intelligence of different animals.

I don’t have a scientific answer to this very subjective question, but I do have a great discussion to refer you to: a blog by Alex K. Chen on Quora addressing the question “What is a good list of animals ordered by intelligence?” Chen’s full article is interesting to read because he tries to compare quite different behaviors and place them on a single linear scale, although he acknowledges that this is an arbitrary simplification of a complicated situation.

To whet your interest I will give you my brief summary of his list of animals, grouped in “tiers” from most to least intelligent. Within each tier, Chen expresses opinions but does not try to give a complete this-one-is-smarter-than-the-next-one ordering.

Here are Chen’s classes of animal intelligence, from smartest to dumbest:
Tier 1 (most intelligent): dolphins, whales, great apes (orangutan, gorilla, bonobo, chimp), elephants and smarter corvids like the New Caledonian crow
Tier 2: monkeys, manta rays, bears, sea lions, wild boars and parrots
Tier 3 (above average): many birds (heron, woodpecker, seagull, mockingbird, stork, owl), raccoons, hyenas, wolves, smarter dog breeds and prairie dogs
Tier 4 (average): donkeys, horses, hippos, penguins, most dogs, cats, large lizards (monitor, Komodo dragon), crocodiles and octopuses
Tier 5 (below average): chickens, pigeons, sharks and the smarter fish
Tiers 6 and 7 (dumbest): most reptiles, fish and amphibians

Thus the smart birds we have been discussing – the greater vasa parrot and the New Caledonian crow – rank very high in the list of intelligent animals. It’s not an overstatement to say that within the context of their lives and surroundings, these smart birds are equal to or superior to most other animals, including I dare say many of our own species. If you doubt that statement, how would you manage to live in a tropical jungle, eating nothing but bugs that you find for yourself? OK, perhaps you are a true outdoor survivor, but I know that I wouldn’t do so well myself!

Smart birds are all around us! If you keep your eyes open you may see crows, parrots and a few other birds doing things that seem downright clever.

Image Credits:
– Greater Vasa Parrot, courtesy of frank wouters on Wikipedia
– New Caledonian Crow, courtesy of John Gerrard Kuelemans via Wikimedia Commons


Smart Birds Make Vitamins, Sculpt Tools — 6 Comments

  1. Nola called my attention to a fascinating cover story about parrots in the NY Times magazine for Sunday 1/31/16. Rescued parrots, who show symptoms of PTSD, are socializing with veterans being treated for PTSD and the connection seems to help all parties heal!

  2. I have for some time been impressed by the range of behaviors which birds can exhibit, particularly given their small brain (since humans tend to believe our brain size is what mostly distinguishes us from the other animals around us). Think about what the common hummingbird can accomplish, with what has to be a thimble-size brain — food behaviors (searching for food, extracting it), sexual behaviors (building a nest, finding a mate, taking care of young), physical behaviors (flying at impressive speeds and in tight quarters using acrobatic moves such as flying upside-down or backwards) and survival behaviors (migrating in some cases thousands of miles twice each year).

    One thing not mentioned in the main article above is certain birds’ abilities to distinguish human faces. One humorous article (if somewhat profane) which includes this subject along with 5 other abilities of crows is here:
    and a somewhat more studious article on face recognition though still with a humorous bent is this one:

  3. Art: I have a pelican that helps me clean off my dock! After my daily turtle/fish feeding I use a fly swatter to sweep the dock clear of what I have dropped/spilled….I keep the fly swatter wedged into the leg of a small table on the dock with the handle stuck between the dock floor boards to keep high winds from blowing table into the canal. Have observed the pelican remove the flyswatter, reverse it (Swat end is up) and sweep the dock. Very clever…. Wish I had photographed….. bob