It may still be hard for some people to get their heads around the idea that birds are pretty smart, especially when the epithet “bird brain” had the connotation of stupidity for so long. The conclusion there, of course, was that size matters, and birds have small brains and therefore are not too smart, or that they behave solely by instinct and have no capacity for reasoning. Ha! is all I have to say to that. I was first attracted to birds by their intelligence. They were smart enough to appreciate the music I was playing, for instance.
While the current theory still leans toward comparative brain size, i.e., the larger the brain case in relationship to the rest of the body, the more “intelligent” the creature, right away making crows, ravens and parrots the geniuses of bird species, I have found finches are quite smart. No doubt Darwin was onto this.
Of course the only way we have to gauge another species’ intelligence is by how it interacts with us, which is pretty one-sided when you think about it. But I’ll admit I don’t have a clue how you figure out what birds are talking about to each other, at least 95% of the time, so it is only when they’re trying to communicate with me or vice versa that I can observe their “intelligence.”
I can already take for granted when I tell a bird something that it will respond to what I’ve said, or to what I’ve thought is more like it, but when a bird tries to tell me something and I try to figure it out – now that’s something. Generally this situation says something about my lack of intelligence. The birds are a lot better at understanding me than I am them.
This past week, as I was walking up the hill out of the park to get back to work on my lunch hour, I noticed a man had stopped to take a picture of something in a tree. I don’t think he was photographing birds. A squirrel maybe. Anyway, when he had the shot, he started walking down the incline into the park with his friend, but was immediately accosted by a handful of House Sparrows. Needless to say he was taken aback. While the House Sparrows didn’t attack him, they pretty much were, I suppose you could say, in his face. The men kept walking and so did I, but I know what was going on there. Um, you see, the House Sparrows associate cameras with people who might have food. I wonder how they come to make that assumption… I admit I sometimes feed the House Sparrows, although my primary targets are the crows, and I’m usually not taking pictures of the House Sparrows, although they are the most willing subjects, again because they associate the camera with food. I wish I could run a little Rupert Sheldrake-type experiment to see if House Sparrows do this in any other park besides Daley Bicentennial Plaza. His theory of morphic resonance could be tested here. Basically the idea is there is a collective intelligence and therefore if a group of House Sparrows have learned to associate cameras with food in one place, they might very well do so somewhere else.
Of course the crows are so smart they have me well-trained. Nevertheless the other park birds have learned to pay attention to the crows when I’m around because it sometimes means a payoff for them. And just like your backyard, the squirrels show up too, and they are a main competitor for peanuts. This week I observed the juvenile crows figuring out how to fake out the squirrels. We all seem to have figured out the squirrels don’t have very good eyesight. I can put a pile of peanuts on the ground and a squirrel will run right past the spot if he didn’t witness the drop. Usually if I throw a peanut to a squirrel it will distract him from a pile of peanuts. In one instance last week, shortly after I had put peanuts down for the crows, a squirrel showed up, and the juvenile crow that was following me around walked away and pretended to be interested in something else until the squirrel left. The same day, the white-winged crow was still more interested in eating his peanuts than stashing them, but when a squirrel tried to take his peanut away, he flew off and stashed his booty.
At home, I have something going on with Ferdinand, the male Society Finch, that has been puzzling me. Friday night is clean-up night and part of the routine is to move all the finch cages away from the windows so I can clean up the papers and the floor underneath them. Ferdinand and Isabella, cage-created birds that they are, think there is nothing more fun in the world than when I put the middle finch cage on the dining room table, swap it out for a clean cage and leave it there so everyone can have their evening snack while I’m cleaning the living room. The other two cages are set aside in the front hallway and are the last things I clean.
Well, last Friday I was very tired and even though I know this routine so well I can do it in my sleep, I made the mistake of thinking it was time to put the first cage back when it was too soon. I corrected myself when I realized I had to hang the curtains first, but Ferdinand seemed to be reacting to my first thought, because he flew over and landed on the floor where the cage was supposed to go. He insistently kept alighting all around the cage area. I got the curtains hung and then moved the first cage back, after which I cleaned the other two as usual, and done with the big chore, I had my evening snack and went to bed.
This week, even though I started the chore a bit late because I was detained half an hour at work, I wasn’t mixed up in my thinking, but Ferdinand seemed to be. He flew over and landed on the floor again, before it was time to move the cage back. He also started flying up to the wand of the vacuum cleaner, as if he wanted me to move it out of the way. What kind of strange game was he playing? After I talked to him, he went back to sit with Isabella on the perch in the cage that was still on the dining room table. When it was finally time to move the cage back, he flew up on top of it and took the “ride” to the corner that way.
I thought about all this the next morning: Ferdinand was trying to tell me something. Perhaps he is trying to be my general contractor. According to his schedule, I should have been putting the cage back a lot earlier than I did. Perhaps Ferdinand thinks I am intelligent enough to try to communicate with because I always pay attention to his song when he sings it. Therefore I must be educatable, however long it takes. Ferdinand wants me to know he knows all about cages and where they go, and as far as he’s concerned once the papers are on the floor the cages should go back. Society Finch indeed. Whose society is this?
I try to run a democracy here, but I am the chief cook and dishwasher.