Who You Callin a Bird Brain?

The March issue of Discover magazine featured a delightful spread on corvid intelligence, specifically highlighting the life work of Nicky Clayton.

Back in the 1990s, her colleagues at the University of California at Davis would stay at their computers at lunchtime, but she would wander outside and watch as western scrub-jays stole bits of students’ meals and secretively cached the food. During these informal field studies, Clayton, an experimental psychologist, noticed that the birds returned frequently to their stashes and changed their hiding places.

“I thought, ‘This is odd,’” she says. “I assumed birds would cache for a long time—days or months. But this was for minutes.” She theorized that the birds were moving their caches to avoid pilfering. When food was plentiful, they grabbed as much as possible and hid it, then hid it again when they could do so without being observed by potential thieves. That behavior implied that the scrub-jays might be thinking about other birds’ potential actions, a type of flexible thinking that was supposedly beyond the capabilities of a scrub-jay’s little brain.

Clayton realized that if she could capture this caching behavior in the laboratory, she might be able to decode the social cognition of birds—the way they think about one another. She might learn whether they are capable of deception, if they respond differently to individual competitors, how well they evaluate their degree of privacy, and other aspects of their mental processes.

“I had a lucky break with caching,” Clayton says. “I saw this as a niche, an area that other people weren’t busy with that might be quite interesting. Little did I know where it would lead.”

Scientists had already established the amazing memories of corvids, the family of birds that includes jays, crows, ravens, and nutcrackers. The Clark’s nutcracker can hide thousands of seeds at a time and has passed tests of recall up to 285 days later. Clayton sought to find out how deep those skills run. Many animals have impressive mental capabilities for certain narrow tasks, but such aptitudes seem to reflect hardwired or conditioned adaptations to specific challenges. That is distinctly different from a human’s ability to create and manipulate a flexible mental model of the world.

Within a few years of her lunchtime insight, Clayton was conducting the first experimental demonstrations of a non­human animal engaged in mental time travel. Her experiments demonstrated that scrub-jays plan for the future, recall incidents from the past, and mentally model the thinking of their peers. Since then her work has expanded even further. She has found other mental capacities in birds that rival or surpass those of any other nonhuman species and come uncannily close to abilities we thought were ours alone.

Looking beyond corvids, some animal behaviorists have examined how songbirds use grammar. And some have ventured farther down the evolutionary tree. One study attributed higher mental functions to fish, presenting evidence that African cichlids can reason inferentially. The accelerating stream of discoveries is challenging our understanding of what animal minds can do.

Clayton’s work also has its fierce critics—not surprising, given the century’s worth of debunked claims regarding animal intelligence. Shettleworth suggests that Clayton and Emery need to repeat the thieving experiment in a different way, with a large number of fresh birds divided into groups according to whether or not they have experience as thieves. “I think the work is provocative but not proven,” Shettleworth says, “because those birds have a history.”

Nicky Clayton’s fascination with birds does not end when she leaves her current day Cambridge University office. Over the years, the avian world has infiltrated her personal life as well, informing her off-hours interests in dance and social connection. And conversely, she has developed ideas related to her research by looking at bird behavior through the prism of her own experience.

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About Nicky Clayton:

With a slight frame and sharp mind, Clayton likes being compared to a bird. As busy as the corvids she studies, she dances six days a week, even during university terms. And to push her metaphor further, you might say that she pays close attention to her plumage: Her dresses come from Milan, and she perches on stiletto heels day and night, whether relaxing at home, practicing salsa, or striding across the medieval flagstones of Cambridge at a breakneck speed.

Last year Clayton had a rare opportunity to bring her two sides together when Mark Baldwin, the artistic director of the London-based Rambert Dance Company, asked her to help create a contemporary dance commemorating the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. She agreed and then spent weeks sorting out how to express evolution in dance. “I was thinking I could just give them a straight science talk, but that’s a bit boring,” she says. “Given that I love to dance, it made sense for me to merge the two.”

In the resulting work, titled “The Comedy of Change,” Baldwin included a solo that evoked the bird of paradise video. Reviewers found the piece beautiful but, as with the behavior of the birds Clayton studies, a bit mysterious. One writer who attended a performance in Northampton that was primarily for schoolchildren appreciated it more—thanks no doubt to a talk Clayton gave in advance.

Clayton still glows about this experience. As a young girl she loved birds, dance, and clothes. Now she has all three, adding dance company science adviser to her list of titles and honors. All of that curiosity and optimism spills right back into her academic work, as she attempts to decode the minds of her scrub-jays. “I just like watching them behave,” she says, “and using that to generate ideas.”

Oxford Studies: Crows Using Tools

A few years ago, scientists were astonished when they saw their crow, Betty,  invent a new tool. Betty’s ability was first noticed after she and her mate  were shown a clear tube that had a small bucket with food at the bottom. The bucket had a handle, and they were given a hooked wire and also a straight one, then observed to see if their choices for solving the puzzle were based on intelligent choice. Betty chose the hooked wire, and after her mate took it from her, she adapted  by bending the straight wireinto a hook of her own. She repeated this skill 9 out of 10 times.


But this was a captive crow that lived in a lab. What researchers really want to know is how wild crows make and use tools. So, to find out, they trapped wild birds on a tropical island and attached video cameras to them.

The footage from this Crow Cam is not the most beautifully produced nature documentary, but keep in mind, it was shot by wild birds.

One scene is labeled “4:21 pm. Flight.” You see a tree branch and black crow legs. Then the bird takes off. The shaky video shows blurry trees far below, bright sky, and black flashes of wing. You hear wind and cawing.


An Unusual Perspective

Christian Rutz at the University of Oxford is a member of the group that conducted the Crow Cam research.

“Most people struggle to understand what’s going on because it’s a very unusual perspective,” Rutz says. “Everybody would expect the camera to sit on the head. Or possibly on the belly or the back.”

The camera comes down through the feathers and then points forward. The view is like what a quarterback might see as he looks through the legs of the center who is holding the football.

Rutz admits that the odd perspective takes some getting used to. “To have this view where you see a look through the bird’s legs is very unusual,” he says.

They caught 18 wild crows  in New Caledonia and attached the cameras, which weigh less than half an ounce. A timer kept the cameras from filming for a couple days, otherwise they would just record crows trying to tear them off.

When the cameras came on, the team set up a receiver and watched the crow channel.

“We see the live footage coming in on this little camera, so we are live and in color on the wing with the New Caledonian crow,” Rutz says.

Crows Seen Selecting Best Tools

In the online edition of the journal Science, the research team says it got about seven hours of video. The team saw two male crows using sticks and dry blades of grass to probe around on the ground. The birds held the tools in their beaks and even carried them from place to place, suggesting they might hold on to especially “good” tools.