Today, smart birds. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Nicola Clayton is the Professor of Comparative Cognition
at Cambridge University. But her students give her the name of a new bird species,
Claytonia professorii. That's what she gets for so radically altering
our view of familiar birds like crows and jays.
Clayton has worked on the intelligence of apes and even of humans, but her remarkable
work on jays has led to an article in this week's Science magazine. She's exposed
amazing similarities between our mental processes and those of birds.
Even before Darwin wrote his very humane book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man
and Animals, we've struggled with the inconvenience of admitting kinship with the
animals. We tell each other that animals aren't self conscious, that they live only in
the present, and that they don't suffer pain as seriously as we do.
Clayton's work is one more brick in a great gathering of evidence to the contrary,
but it's a very strong brick. Here's a typical experiment: She puts Jays in a cage
with two sides. One side is spacious and well supplied with food -- the other, cramped
and bare. The birds have free run of both sides for a while, then they're locked up
in the unpleasant side -- back and forth over time.
The jays quickly realize that the pleasure of the comfortable side of the cage is only
a part of their lives. So they create food stashes in the empty side while they can.
They truly do lay up store against winter, just as you and I do.
In fact, the entire survival of jays depends on their ability to store food and remember
locations -- even to remember expiration dates. A stored nut will last a long time,
but a stored grub will rot after a short time. Jays know how to remember not only where
they stashed food, but when.
For a long time, many animal behaviorists thought this was a hard-wired, or instinctive,
ability. Clayton scotches that notion by varying the circumstances of her birds. And
While she's very cautious about wishfully attributing too much to birds, she does step into
controversy in one area. She studies a very human behavior in birds. It is deception.
And she decides she has enough evidence to assert that they size one another up -- that
they decide which of their companions can be trusted.
On another matter there's no longer much argument, namely that birds are technologists.
They make and use tools. For a long time, we thought -- I thought -- that tool use set us
apart. Now it's entirely clear that jays, and other birds, pick up twigs, sometimes even
shaping twigs into effective forms, and use them to pry grubs out of holes. They also adapt
their methods to new problems that Clayton lays before them.
The Science article ends with a fine irony. It is that Clayton's next step would
be dissection to learn about the neurology of her birds' learning. Of course it's
now so clear that they are sentient and aware. And one does not sacrifice one's friends.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
V. Morell, Nicky and the Jays. Science, Vol. 315, 23 Feb., 2007. pp. 1074-1075.
N. J. Emery and N. S. Clayton also carefully lay out the pitfalls of interpreting animal
behavior as human in: The Behavior of Animals: Mechanisms, Function, and Evolution.
Johan J. Bolhuis and Luc-Alain Giraldeau, eds. (Blackwell Pub. Ltd., 2004): See Chapter 13,
Animal Cognition. See: this book online, here.
Much more is written on these subjects. For more on tool-making, see B. B. Beck, Animal
Tool Behavior. (New York: Garland STPM Press, 1980. For more on altruism see Episodes
720 and 1036, and the
references they include.
All photos by JHL
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.