Avian Einsteins

The uncanny intelligence and emotion of smart birds—and how they're like humans

Small Birds Use Their Brains to Live Among Us

Urban blackbirds learn when stores open and rush ahead of people to score a meal

As we humans challenge our ecological systems I often wonder how our fellow creatures will fare.  Many have been extinguished by our shortsighted actions, and many more will likely follow these unfortunates down the extinction vortex.  Our immense changes to the land and the climate will surely challenge all of nature, us included.  As a professional biologist these thoughts can be sobering if not downright depressing.  Yet occasionally I’m buoyed by an observation of an animal using its tiny brain to overcome our best efforts to scarify life from the planet.

The Brewer’s blackbird is a small songbird—a wee bit smaller than a robin—that once lived among the great herds of bison that roamed the Great Plains and forests of North America.  The drab brown females and glossy purple-black males likely thrived on the disturbance wreaked by bison.  The birds ate the insects flushed out of hiding by the grazing herds and munched on seeds that grew from the grasses that the beasts regularly cropped.  When food was abundant, male blackbirds gathered harems of females for breeding and nested in small colonies with others.  And then we wiped out the bison, plowed the prairies, and paved much of what wasn’t farmed.

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Yet the Brewer’s blackbird survived.  They adapted to our rapid and unpredictable changes.  They fed among our cattle, even if those cattle were corralled.  They invaded our cities, possibly following horses.  Even today they live among us where no stock or wild beasts exist.  In my city in western Washington, Brewer’s blackbirds now live with 4-wheeled brutes.  The birds’ preferred habitat seems clearly to be large parking lots that sport a bit of shrubbery and a lot of vehicular and foot traffic.  They strut among our cars and our feet as we park and walk to and from the store, much as they once dodged among quadrupeds on the pristine prairie.  They pick bugs from our car grills and feast on our leavings.  I’ve yet to see a bird crushed, though I suspect it must occasionally happen.

More amazing still, I’ve discovered the extent to which these urban blackbirds have learned our ways.  At a large near my house the birds never gather in an empty parking lot.  Before the store opens, the immense lot is free of cars, people, and birds.  But as the time of opening approaches, people begin to arrive.  They sit in their cars and slowly cue up at the door anticipating the route they will shop.  This is precisely when the birds arrive.  From where, I don’t know.  But their internal clocks are precisely set to our activity.  As the minutes to opening count down, a few birds gather among us and perch on the pillars just outside the door.  When the doors come up the birds rush in, many ahead of the people.  Into the store go the innovative birds—testing new feeding grounds among the bakery, the dried goods, and the indoor café.  They come and go exploiting us as their ancestors exploited the bison.

Brewer’s blackbirds and many birds that are able to tolerate the disturbance our cities have a bright future.  Their ability to learn associations between the time of day, the behavior of people, and hidden riches of food enable them to exploit our behavior.  Their social lifestyles beget social information from which they can learn without the danger of an individual trial.  Their cognitive ability allows flexible behavior that has been a key to their survival in a changing world.  As the world continues to change at an ever-increasing pace it will be the smart that survive.  I hope we are among that clan.

John Marzluff, Ph.D. is a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington where he researches the behavior and conservation of birds, especially crows, ravens, and jays.

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