Posts Tagged ‘Bird brains’

Geese Brains

January 5, 2010

Our readers know that calling someone a “bird brain” is no more an insult that calling that person a “bright bulb.”  But if you know doubters who somehow missed the science about avian intelligence, you can send them this.  Apparently the owners thought a couple of scarecrows would keep the Canada Geese off their lawn.  The geese were not amused.

“Alex and Me” by Dr. Irene Pepperberg

November 24, 2008

We’ve written here before about Alex, the African Gray Parrot studied by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Alex could count to six, identify colors and had a working vocabulary of about 150 words.  He also had some grasp of simple concepts, an emotional life, and something that looks very much like what we humans like to call intelligence.

Dr. Pepperberg has written a book about Alex which is reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in tomorrow’s print edition of the New York Times and can also be read online. When Dr. Pepperberg began her work with Alex most scientists held the view that animals and birds had nothing we would call intelligence but were organisms which did nothing but “mindlessly” respond to stimuli.  Ms. Kakutani writes:

In the 1980s, however, “the fortress of human uniqueness came under attack” with the findings of Jane Goodall and others who worked with primates, and Dr. Pepperberg proposed to “replicate the linguistic and cognitive skills that had been previously achieved with chimps in a gray parrot, an animal with a brain the size of a shelled walnut, but one that could talk.”

Crows and Ravens, Part VI

January 29, 2008

We unaccountably missed the December episode of “Nature” on PBS about Ravens. Attempting to remedy that mistake we went in search of video from the program and found this short excerpt from the program. Long time readers will know of our admiration for the intelligence of Corvids which increased after watching this Raven contest a Bald Eagle for an avian snack and then go fishing.


Update: We’ve added a category for “Crows and Ravens.” You can find other posts in the series by clicking on that category on the right side of the home page or you can follow these links which will open in a new window:

Part I – Here.

Part II – Here.

Part III – Here.

Part IV – Here.

Part V – Here.

Part VI – Here.

Crows and Ravens – New Caledonian Crows -Breaking News – Here.

New Caledonian Crows Again – Here.

The Nature of Intelligence – Here.

Crows and Ravens, Part V – Fictional Birds, Part II

December 10, 2007

Our posts here about crows and ravens are our most popular and another is on the way. Our incipient series about fictional birds is also popular. Obviously it is time to wed the two and today we do that; calling on the services of the late Vincent Price.

Grand Canyon Ravens

November 3, 2007

Consistent readers of this blog will know that we love ravens. Smart, adaptable, clever, cute; they are survivors. Recently, in the bottom of the Grand Canyon one of us had the opportunity to watch two of them catch an early morning thermal and rise far beyond the cliffs in this photo. You can see one of them in the center of the photo. (The other one of us declined to go along on the trip, noting the absence of showers at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.) grand-canyon-raven-1-of-1.jpg

When I saw this Raven, all I thought was, “What a wonderful place to make a living.” If the Hindus and Buddhists are correct about reincarnation and we come back many many times, it would be good to spend at least one of those lifetimes as a Raven, living in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.

New Caledonian Crows Again

October 4, 2007

The New Caldonia Crows are at again. So are the scientists who study them. Now the scientists have affixed tiny lightweight cameras to the tails of some of the crows. The scientists, not fully trusting what the crows do in captivity, wanted to watch their behavior in the wild. So they fitted 18 crows with 5 ounce cameras attached to their tails and let them return to the mountains of New Caldonia. The crows surprised the scientists again, using more than just sticks to get at protein rich grubs under the ground. You can watch some of the videos here which is today’s BBC story. The videos aren’t of the greatest quality but you’ll get the idea. Our favorite is the ground’s eye view of a takeoff and flight with a stick in the crow’s mouth. But you’ll also see crows hunting with sticks, hitting with sticks, hopping from branch to branch and eating a snail.

Crows and Ravens, Part IV

July 23, 2007

We now know that Crows and Ravens are smart. Now, let us assume that you are confronted with a large black bird. It looks smart. It can identify you, can you identify it? How do you figure out whether it is a Crow or a Raven? Just follow the steps we list here and you’ll identify it successfully. (This post is based on the discussion in an excellent book, Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges, by Bill Thompson, III and the editors of Bird Watchers Digest. We’ll be adding it to the book section soon but don’t wait for us. Buy yourself a copy. Where, you ask? Well, we do sell it but it is also at your local independent book seller’s.)

Step One: Where are you?

Range maps are the first clue. American Crows are found from the tree line in Northern Canada all the way south to Mexico. They are; however, absent from the high Sierra Nevada, West Texas and the lowlands of the Southwest.


Fish crows are found only in the American Southeast. Northwestern crows are confined to the Pacific Coast from Northern Washington to Southern Alaska.

Common Ravens are found just about everywhere American Crows are found except for the north central U.S. and the Great Plains. (So, if you are in the Great Plains, that large black bird is almost certainly an American Crow.)


Chihuahuan ravens are found only in the desert southwest and, occasionally in southeast Colorado to southwest Nebraska.

Chihuahuan Raven Range Map

Step Two: Decide if it is a crow or a raven.

A. If the bird is flying:

1. Ravens soar; crows, hardly ever.
2. Ravens have distinct wedge shaped tails. Crows’ tails are squared off at the rear.
3. Ravens flap more slowly and less often. They glide and soar. Crows flap constantly and steadily.

B. If the bird is sitting:

1. Ravens are – usually – larger, as much as twice.
2. Ravens have thicker bills.
3. Ravens have shaggy throat feathers, crows don’t.

C. If the bird is talking:

1. Crows have clear voices and give loud, clear “caw” notes, often in a series. Listen here.

2. Ravens have deep, hoarse voices and “kraaack” or “croak” or “gronk”. Think Edgar Allan Poe or Grip in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Listen here.

Step Three: If it is a raven, decide which kind.


This is a problem only in the desert southwest since it is the only place Chihuahuan and Common Ravens overlap.

Have the bird sit absolutely still so you can walk up to it and examine the base of its neck feathers. If the base of the feathers is white, it is a Chihuahuan Raven. If it is dirty gray, it is a common raven. Speak Spanish to the former, English to the latter.

There is no other way to tell for sure which is which. You can guess though. Chihuahuan’s prefer open grassland and scrub desert lowlands and commons prefer higher elevations and wooded habitats. Chihuahuans hang out together more than Commons, at least in the winter.

Step Four: If it is a Crow, decide which kind.


This will be a problem only if you are in the Southeast United States or the Pacific Coast. If you are in one of those two places you now must decide what kind of crow it is.

Forget it. It’s impossible. Just stay away from those places and you will never have to deal with it. But, if you do find yourself on a beach in British Colombia, assume it is a Northwestern Crow and add it to your life list. But. if you are more than 500 yards inland, assume it is an American Crow.

Step Five: If you really can’t decide.

If you still don’t know and there are people waiting for you to tell them, announce loudly and confidently that it is whichever one you want it to be. No one will ever be able to prove you wrong. Only that big black bird will know.


Update: We’ve added a category for “Crows and Ravens.” You can find other posts in the series by clicking on that category on the right side of the home page or you can follow these links which will open in a new window.

Crows and Ravens:

Part I – Here.

Part II – Here.

Part III – Here.

Part V – Here.

Part VI – Here.

Crows and Ravens – New Caledonian Crows -Breaking News – Here.

New Caledonian Crows Again – Here.

The Nature of Intelligence – Here.

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