Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D.

Jonathan Balcombe Ph.D.

The Inner Lives of Animals

Falling for Birds, One at a Time

Some Tits are smarter than others.

Posted Jan 13, 2011

Nearly 3,000 Red-winged Blackbirds fell dead from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas on New Year's Eve. Theories for the birds' demise include trauma from lightning, but the timing and non-rural location suggest that fireworks were involved.

I've been watching birds drop down onto my deck lately. Juncos, titmice, chickadees, wrens, blue jays, nuthatches. They're not plummeting from a great height. They flit down among the deck chairs to grab the peanuts (in the shell) I toss out on cold mornings, or to peck at peanut butter I smear between the two-by-fours so the squirrels can't monopolize the spoils. They also gravitate to my plug-in bird bath, which used to play second-fiddle to my neighbor's until he moved. Now mine is one of the few in the neighborhood where the water isn't frozen. And they know it.

I rarely tire of watching these birds. The way a titmouse pauses on a chair rung, tilting her head to gaze down at a morsel before zipping in to snatch it. The way a wren scurries across the deck, deftly nipping up peanut fragments with her scimitar bill with rapid-fire speed and astonishing accuracy. How a blue jay lands on the handrail, checks that the coast is clear, then hops down on robust legs, grabs a big nut and makes off with it.

A soon-to-be-published study of Great Tits in Britain (no tittering, please) has shown something that shouldn't surprise, but it's something we rarely think about: some Tits are smarter than others. The study found inherent individual differences in creativity when presented with a difficult foraging task. Forty-four percent of 570 wild Tits solved a food motivated lever-pulling or string-pulling problem.

It stands to reason that some birds play with a fuller deck than others. Wild creatures of one species are no more clones of each other than we are. From our poor vantage point they may all seem identical, but each is a unique individual with a personality. Natural selection hinges on individual variation; otherwise there isn't anything to select from.

Anyone who doubts that little birds can have big personalities should read Providence of a Sparrow: Lessons from a Life Gone to the Birds about a tame house sparrow named "B" (here's a video of B in action). Or Birds as Individuals by a British musicologist named Len Howard, who opened her home up to wild birds and gained intimate insights into their idiosyncratic habits. (Howard's book was published in 1952 and, sadly but not surprisingly, is a rare find today).

Like all animals, birds are good at what is meaningful and important to them. Some individuals just happen to be better at some things than others. But a bird who struggles at string-pulling might excel in other ways. After all, every adult wild bird is a survivor who managed to get enough food in the nest, successfully fledged, negotiated the perils of learning to fly and gaining independence, and now thrives in a challenging world. Maybe nature even loves the occasional dunce. How many fewer oaks might there be if it were not for the forgetful squirrel who can't remember where he buried the acorn?