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CASH Courier > Fall 2002 / Winter 2003 Issue

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The C.A.S.H. Courier
From the Fall 2002 / Winter 2003 Issue

BIRD BRAINS SURPRISE SCIENTISTS BUT NOT US!

Called a 'bird brain?' Study says it may be a compliment

Excerpts of article by By Wayne A. Hall, Times Herald-Record, waynehall@th-record.com

[A] crow studied in England now makes tools, as well as uses them. Betty, in a lab at England's Oxford University, figured out how to bend a piece of wire into a hook and retrieve what she wanted. Two crows – Betty and Abel - were presented with a small bucket of food inside a tube and two pieces of wire, one hooked and one straight. "Our surprise came when, in the fifth trial, the male stole the hooked wire from the female and took it away. Far from giving up, she then picked the remaining straight wire and bent it herself," says Oxford professor Alex Kacelnik. Betty repeated the success over and over, using the wire to pull the bucket up by its handle, illustrating this: "Toolmaking and tool use has always been considered one of the diagnostics of a superior intelligence. Now a bird is shown to have greater sophistication than many closer relatives of us humans," Kacelnik said.

Washingtonville's Herb Stein, an expert birder, says his friends' macaw stuck his foot out of its cage, turned the key padlock, pulled out the key left inserted by the owner, and opened his door. The bird got out and trashed the room. Crows and their cousins, the blue jay, are bright, too.

It seems that brain size dictates a lot of bird smarts. Big brain in relationship to body size makes keen bird, says Cornell University researcher Tim DeVoogd. He's studying one of the most common mid-Hudson birds, the tiny chickadee, a frequent bird feeder visitor with a big brain for a bird. Show one of these winged pixies where the food is hidden on a wall of wooden blocks and guess what? "After [one look] it can remember the location for weeks," says DeVoogd. "That's incredible learning."

Canada geese are alert, but when they walk up to a fence, it doesn't occur to them that they can fly over it, says Stein.

[Editor’s Note: We’ve seen geese fly over fences except when they are molting or youngsters and CAN’T fly.]

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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