You’ve no doubt heard the phrase bird-brained used to describe someone or something that’s not very smart, or that’s even pretty stupid. Well, if it means having a brain the size of a mourning dove, it’s a pretty accurate phrase. Mourning doves have tiny heads and tiny brains. But if the phrase is referring to a raven’s large, complex brain, then we must protest!
Although not all birds receive an equal share in the smarts department, saying that birds are smart or stupid is not really accurate. What’s most impressive about birds is their ability to learn, retain information, and alter their behavior accordingly. In other words, a bird is exactly as smart as it needs to be.
Mourning doves may seem stupid when they build a flimsy stick nest on a slender branch high in a tree. The wind blows, the eggs fall through the bottom of the nest, and the female dove sits there with a blank expression. Because these doves are so prolific (in some areas they nest year-round), they really have no reason to alter their behavior. The female dove will just build another flimsy nest and lay more eggs. It may seem like a stupid way of coping, but it’s the method the mourning doves have been blessed with by evolution, along with a small head and tiny brain. And they seem to be doing fine.
Ravens, on the other hand, are great learners. Consequently, they’ve been studied by ornithologists and behaviorists for a long time. One particular study was conducted to see if ravens could solve a problem.
A hunk of suet was suspended by a string from a horizontal branch. Ravens attempted to get at the suet, which was suspended far enough below the perch to prevent the ravens’ reaching it by simply leaning down. Because ravens are large and heavy birds, hovering to get the food isn’t possible. Before long, several ravens discovered how to pull the string up in stages, by holding the slack string under their feet. Once a raven solved this problem, it had no trouble repeating the process when faced with the situation again. Dummy strings that had no suet attached were largely ignored.
Such trial-and-error learning is extremely valuable to birds in the wild. This process is how birds come to know about predators, prey and food, and other skills necessary for survival.
Some birds can count, which helps them keep track of the many eggs in their nests. Other birds that hide food in secret places, such as jays and crows, can remember the location of these caches months later, when they return to consume food.
Rather than saying that birds are smart, you can say that birds are incredibly adaptable creatures who can change their behavior to suit a situation and thus enhance their chances of survival.