Bird-Brained

Pablo Picasso

Here in Berkeley while I am waiting for “the clouds” to pass, I have made a few new friends. This has been possible without visiting bars because my new friends are birds. I’ve gotten to know them by putting out treats on the top railing of my deck. I don’t do this just to be nice — there is plenty to eat year-round in Berkeley’s moderate climate. I do it for a little entertainment and hoping to learn something.

My project isn’t elaborate or innovative. I put out small amounts of bird food several times a day so the birds will see me often and recognize me as a friend. And now they do, especially the crows, who hover near the railing and squawk to get my attention. I am starting to recognize the difference between the jays’ call for more food and the way they announce to their friends that the food has arrived.

He recognizes me even when I am in my kitchen. I can’t tell him apart from his friends.

I don’t use species-specific bird feeders, and I put out foods that appeal to all kinds of birds because I have wanted to see what would happen in a free-for-all. But instead of competition, there seems to be a lot of inter-species cooperation. Sometimes the food will sit on the railing for hours, even after it has been ordered up. The birds show up at different times for different treats. The crows love fruits and nuts. The sparrows and towhees eat the millet that has fallen to the floor of the deck. Sometimes, a bird will share the railing with a squirrel, which is pretty funny — the squirrel frantically cramming everything in his mouth and the crow calmly shelling sunflower seeds one at a time. (Like so many urban dwellers, I have waged war with squirrels, but I gave up. Now I love them too.) So far, no evidence of rats. Fingers crossed actually.

Special note to Marianne: I have no idea what he is eating or how it got there.

In honor of my new friends, I am reading a book called The Genius of Birds. It’s an excellent, mostly anthropocentric overview of the research on bird intelligence. The author (mostly) emphasizes how birds can solve problems like humans, use tools like humans, play with toys like humans, socialize like humans. These are good measures of intelligence because we humans understand them. And, of course, animals and humans share emotions and analytical skills.

Stock photo of “anthropomorphic” dog

But maybe assessing animal intelligence by comparing animals to humans doesn’t give animals enough credit. Doesn’t it require intelligence to navigate thousands of miles in flight or across vast tracts of land? To know when an earthquake or a human seizure is imminent?  To know the anniversary of a loved one’s death without the benefit of a calendar? (Elephants)

I was wondering what questions our animal friends might ask as part of an investigation of human intelligence:

  • How do humans treat each other? Are they able to sustain their communities by making sure everyone is well-fed and safe and free from diseases that could harm others?
  • How do humans care for their habitat? Are they creating and maintaining an environment that will be good for their children and grandchildren?
  • How do humans deal with conflict and scarce resources? Do they use their intelligence to adapt or do they kill each other?
  • Who and what do humans follow? Are they motivated by leaders who exploit the many to benefit the few, or by their instincts to assure the survival of their species?

Most animal communities get high ratings using these metrics. Most human communities do not. We still have some time left to change that.

 

 “The caged bird sings with a fearful trill, of things unknown, but longed for still, and his tune is heard on the distant hill, for the caged bird sings of freedom.”   — Maya Angelou

7 comments

  1. Nice piece Kim. And good questions to raise and ponder. But,…

    I see lots of competition among birds at my seed and nut feeders. The larger birds- particularly Jays- would chase away the small folks and dominate the feeders, surrounding airspace and roosting opportunities. Only when I went to feeders that were weight sensitive (precluding the big guys from feeding) did the smaller folk appear in abundance as the big bullies took my hint and disappeared. Although there still seems to be plenty of competition between the little guys, at least they’re more evenly matched against one another. Hummingbirds, my frequent guests, constantly engage in aggressive buzzing runs at one another trying to dominate those sweet water feeders. They even strive to ward off their larger (albeit still small) brethren such as chickadees who dare to try to sip at their treasure trove of sugar water.

    It’s the animal kingdom Kim… not Disneyland… and it’s everyone is out for themselves. When cooperation helps individual survival, they cooperate. When not, they compete. We’ve learned the latter survival strategy all too well, but not so much the former.

  2. Great post (and questions). We too made birds (and squirrels and chipmunks) both our friends and source of entertainment. The thing that amazes us the most is how they interact with us. They come to tell us when their food is low. One red breasted nuthatch comes for a drink next to our table every time we sit down to have dinner on the deck as if they want our company too. We seem to be able to observe more and have the time to analyse it too! I call it the Corona gift.

  3. I’m so delighted you have discovered birds, Kim. Your life will never be the same! I loved reading of your observations and questions. The pandemic has made me a better birder because I walk alone so much these days. Now I can tell a few species of swallows from each other; if a Cooper’s Hawk is a juvenile or adult; if a Red Crossbill is a male or female. Next thing you know you will start a Life List of birds, and then a list of your own home. We just got to #50 here at our house– a Wilson’s Warbler. xoxo

    1. I wish I could be a birder! but every time I have been on walking tours with naturalists I can never see the birds unless they are a few feet from me. I have very bad eyes! 😫

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