Remember when the term “bird brain” was used as an insult? Well, biologists say it will soon have to go out of fashion as a new understanding emerges: birds are not at all stupid, but rather smart and competent.
However, there’s one fact that helps some birds be more intelligent than others: living in the city. According to researchers in Barbados, urban birds have been found to be smarter than rural birds.
Many urban residents have been the unassuming witnesses of surprising avian genius, such as crows cracking nuts under the cars’ wheels, or seagulls opening Doritos stolen from the corner shop.
Over the past few months, scientists at McGill University’s Bellairs facility have been capturing bullfinches from suburbs, cities, and rural environments. As bullfinches are native to the island, the team wanted to see if the birds had different qualities depending on the environment they live in.
Their findings were published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, describing the way they tested the birds’ intelligence. The experiments that were meant to measure problem-solving and associative learning varied from less difficult to downright challenging.
For example, the birds had to figure out how to distinguish between two different colored buttons (one dispensed food); become familiar with a new object in their cage; and get birdseed by opening drawers.
Surprisingly, urban birds were much more superior in cognitive tests, performing tests like opening drawers with little to no problem. Meanwhile, they were also found to have better immune systems.
Study author Jean-Nicolas Audet, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology, said researchers were surprised that urban bullfinches also had better immunity, but it turns out that in terms of intelligence and health, some city birds have it all.
Researchers said urban bullfinches were more fearless and bold than their rural counterparts, but only when it came to familiar situations. New objects caused them to be more cautious than countryside birds. Both types of birds were tied at the test of discriminating between colors.
Does this mean that humans can improve a species’ intelligence – even without being aware of it? Maybe. But at the same time, researchers took into consideration the possibility that the increases in cognitive ability occurred due to other factors, like climate change or invasive species.
The takeaway of the study is that there’s need for further research to determine whether humans play a contributing role in increasing the birds’ intellect. If not, is climate change causing animals to get smarter?
Image Source: David Chapman