« Two Great Educational Books | Main | John Nuttall »

Sunday, 01 November 2009


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

A wonderful story (actually two wonderful stories).

This is a bit off-topic, but your introduction reminded me of a passage from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

"...man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons."

HI Ctein,

I recall(I could be wrong!) one of the Galapagos Finches (Darwin's Finches) uses a thorn or similar pointed twig to winkle grubs from crevices. Similar sized brain to a Budgie I should think.

Living in rural Australia I get to see a lot of wild parrots, One of the most impressive sights I've ever seen is a flock of budgerigars (hundreds of the little blighters) fly as the changed direction the colour of the flock changed, one way was their top feathers and the other was underside.

Budgerigar also means "good to eat" in one of the indigenous language groups. Which means that considering the size of them you must be able to catch a lot of them fast.

I'm sorry for your loss with Opal. I have a yellow nape and she amazes me how smart she is.

On 9/20/07 The Economist ran an obituary of Alex the African Grey, a parrot with the intelligence of a 5-year old (human). Not sure if this URL will work (http://www.economist.com/obituary/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9828615) without a subscription to The Economist, but it seems Opal was not alone.

Dear Kerry,

That rings a bell for me, too, although it may simply be shared delusion.

I don't think the finches have demonstrated tool-making, though my memory could be wrong about that. Tool use isn't that uncommon, many birds do it, being kinda hand-deprived. Tool-making (or modification) is much rarer.

pax / Ctein

Then there's the whole issue of language. Supposedly, birds just randomly imitate what they've heard (see the Alex link above for evidence to the contrary). Here's my own bit of evidence:

When I was about 7, my mom took me to the local pet store. She noticed that there was a Myna bird in residence, and she crouched down to talk to it face-to-face.
"You're beautiful!" my mother crooned.
The Myna cocked its head and looked at her, as if listening intently.
"You're beautiful!" my mother said again, pronouncing it slowly and clearly, and with feeling.
The Myna turned its other ear toward her and once again appeared to be listening closely.
"You're beautiful!" my mother said one more time.
The Myna tilted its head, looked at her and said,
"You're ugly!"

Yep. Some of the Galapagos finches do indeed use tools. For a not very good report on the phenomenon, you might pick up "The Beak of the Finch", by Jonathan Weiner. Alternatively, you could go straight to the horse's mouth (or the finch's beak, if you prefer), and read any of Peter and Rosemary Grant's books/papers on the subject. They've been studying the finches for a few decades. Very nifty people, the Grants.

Biologist, not behaviouralist, but one definition used to separate humans from other animals was the ability to form and use tools. That definition was abandoned when it was discovered to be untrue...


Check out New Caledonian crows for tool making...
Quite amazing.


I'm no expert, but as noted there seem to be plenty of animals that make/use tools of some form. It also seems to me that most have behaviour that can be learned from their peers/parents.
What is amazing to me about Opal's story is that this is evidently "invention" in that there was no reference from which to learn. Regardless of brain size, I doubt there are many animals that invent new things in this way.

The full story of the African Grey can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0061672475

It is Irene Pepperberg's first person account of the life (and death) of Alex.

You might want to find her email address and forward a copy of this entry.

Adam, your link works, and I am amazed. These bits of information are so interesting!! :)

That's why I like this blog. photo, photo, photo, photo, a tool making bird who's scuba certified and has a wicked splitter she can throw for strikes, photo, photo...

It's a lovely story - but I don't know what a slinky is.

I think there's still much to be learned about how intelligent all animals actually are. Just a couple of years ago, chimps were first seen in the wild routinely making spears from sticks and using them to hunt small prey with. This was the first time any creature, besides man, has ever been observed making weapons. I'm not sure I'd be surprised if out in the mountains, there is a group of bears developing software. By the way, I love hearing your bird stories.

Making and using tools is all well and good, but our cat can get my wife and I to do anything it wants by psychological manipulation. We know it's going on, and it still works.

I can't begin to tell you how much this post made me smile. Kudos to Opal, one smart budgie!

Interesting story and reminds me of the one I read recently about Caledonian Rooks (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8181233.stm).


Tool use is not that unusal; tool manufacture on the other hand..
You might enjoy:


For those unfamiliar with XKCD, you can get another comment/joke out of each strip that pops up when you hold the mouse over it. (If you can't see the whole thing, right click and hit properties, then select the "Title" text...certain Firefox versions require this.) The one Ctein posted says :

"How could you choose avoiding a little pain over understanding a magic lightning machine?"

Any thing about Finches in the Galapagos probably came from these people:

(This is a blogpost on a recent talk)

There's quite a bit of academic research on Caledonian crows and their use of tools. The first time I saw the following video without knowing what to expect _really_ freaked me out (in a good way):


Dear David,

Google is your friend. If you Google the word "slinky", you'll not only get many descriptions of the toy, but the thumbnail images that show up on the search results page show slinky in the 'inverted U' position I described in this article.


Dear Martin,

Tool use is common; tool-making is much less common. Tool invention is extremely rare... and difficult to prove.

I am not convinced that Opal actually 'invented' this tool; the overall shape could very well be a natural result of their instinctive chewing pattern. Recognizing the utility of it and then replicating it are, for me, fairly convincing evidence of tool use and manufacture.

Corvids have much larger brains and are demonstrably much smarter than budgies. Tool-making in a budgie is bizarre, IMO.

Bird brains are weird. For a long time (may still be true) the world record-holder for a talking bird was a budgie. Its distinct utterances numbered in the very high hundreds.

pax / Ctein

Another url, this one on clever dolphins:


A 2003 article from the Guardian.


Ctein, I'll add more one link to the already long list of interesting links above. This is also related to corvids, but I think your scientific mind will enjoy this presentation:

Robert: It's not the cat, it's the parasite they infect you with. http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/060803_tgondii_culture.html


AFAIK, among intelligence researchers, absolute brain size is considered less significant than brain size compared to body size. So perhaps a salient question is whether there is a difference in relative brain sizes when we compare budgies to larger psittacines or to corvids.

Of course, the answer would only serve to locate Opal's feat somewhat more precisely on a scale of remarkable to freakish, scientifically speaking.

Great story, though sad to hear about your losing your little friend. There's an article today in our local newspaper about the intelligence of birds--especially parrots and their kin. Birds can be such fun!

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007