Bird Fact Friday: What is intelligence?

Adapted from page 12 of Bird Brain:

What do we mean when we say that an animal is intelligent? Scientists mean something specific by intelligence, especially in creatures without language: the ability to flexibly solve novel problems using cognition rather than mere learning and instinct.

Intelligence in action is the application of cognition outside of the context in which it evolved. An animal may have evolved a specific skill that enables it to deal with a particular ecological problem, such as predicting the behavior of group members or distinguishing large from small quantities, but it cannot use these same skills to address different problems for which the skills did not evolve. However, the flexibility to be able to transfer those skills is probably what distinguishes intelligent from cognitive species.

Merlina is one of the ravens at the Tower of London. She has formed a strong bond with Chris Skaife, the Raven master, but also likes carrying around sticks and even plays dead to the delight of the crowds who come to see her antics. Photo credit: Chris Skaife

Cognition refers to the processing, storage, and retention of information across different contexts. In the wild, birds use cognition to process information, enabling them to survive but not necessarily to solve problems. A pigeon that distinguishes foods from non-foods does not need to stretch its mental muscles as much as a crow that creates and modifies a tool to reach a grub hidden inside a tree trunk, fashioning the tool to the correct length in order to reach the treat. Both are challenges related to procuring food, but one requires a wider range of skills than the other.

One important consideration is that intelligence is not a mechanism. A specific behavior can be perceived as intelligent based on its outcome—such as the solving of a problem—but that does not mean that this solution is achieved using similar processes to those used by a human. The animal may employ sophisticated cognitive processes—perhaps using imagination (thinking about objects, events, and actions not currently available to perception), or forward planning (prospection), or requiring an understanding of how events (actions) are related to their consequences (causal reasoning)— and these cognitive acts may be variously deployed in different contexts. But they may also be the result of trial-and-error learning (learning the best course of action after repeated experiences of the same event) or simpler cognitive processes for which that particular species has evolved a solution. The specific mechanisms underlying animal behavior are frequently the object of controversy and debate, especially in creatures more distantly related to us. This book attempts to present different perspectives on what may underlie seemingly intelligent bird behavior: from instinct, learning, and cognition to imagination, forethought, and insight.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Bird Fact Friday: The Evolution of Avian IntelligenceBird Fact Friday: A Basic Approach to Gull ID >>