Thinking like a bird

One of the things I love about my regular walk to the the train station is the chance to check out the critters’ daily routines while I’m in the midst of mine.  I’m an everyday intruder, just passing through.  Through the carpark behind the panel beaters’ shed where the glossy black cockatoos do their acrobatics.   Over the slimy patch on the footpath that used to lure eastern waterdragons out to play chicken in the traffic (I stress “used to”. Sad face). Past the carefully tended brush turkey mound in the scrub by the library and round the the blind corner where butcherbirds find their roadkill.  So far I’ve never seen them pecking at the flattened remains of kids on skateboards but I worry.

I was trudging home a few months ago, when there was a kerfuffle in the shrubbery that even the most self-absorbed commuter couldn’t ignore. An aggravated bird was repeatedly hurling herself at an invisible enemy, and making a tremendous din.  I spotted a tail sliding behind the trunk of a halfway up a tree – was it a goanna? a snake?  No, a brush-tailed possum, having a late afternoon snack in a grey butcherbird’s nest. Mum was willing to fight for her eggs to her last breath.  I don’t have any pictures of the stramash, unfortunately, despite roaming around Berowra most days like some bumbling stalker, a chunky camera swinging around my neck.

However, I feel a bit less sheepish about my amateur-hour suburban birdwatching – and a little less clueless about butcherbirds – after  reading Gisela Kaplan’s fascinating book Bird Minds (CSIRO, 2015) this week.

Butcherbird in near silhouette crop

Grey butcherbird makes a rare appearance in the backyard

Bird Minds considers most aspects of avian cognition – social learning, mimicry, tool use, play, abstract thought and emotion  – with a particular focus on the locals.  This, as Kaplan points out, is no mean feat.  Aussie natives are under-discussed in the world of scholarly ornithology, it seems.  She tells (with secret delight, I reckon) how the international community were forced to reluctantly accept that songbirds evolved in the part of Gondwanaland that came to be Australia, overturning 200 years of northern hemisphere prejudice.  The oldest songbird fossil ever found came from here, and recently the discovery of heron footprints from the Cretaceous Era in southern Victoria showed that birds and those other, non-avian dinosaurs cohabited this part of the world, at least, for millions of years.

So, as well as summarising the work of researchers from around the globe, to fill the gap in the published research on Australian natives, Kaplan draws on anecdotes from bird watchers (like the amazing tales of fire-starting black kites that have done the rounds in the papers lately) and her own experience of studying, observing and hand-rearing birds over the decades.  My particular favourite is her story of the adopted 75 year old galah who liked to summon all four household dogs by name in a passable impression of Kaplan’s voice just for the fun of bossing them around.  Every week.  It’s this kind of jolly jape that keeps a bird young.

Galahs in the rain crop

Pair of galahs

Butcherbirds are just the type of birds that Kaplan is interested in, although her own research for the last 25 years has been on another member of the Artamidae family, the Australian magpie.  Currawongs, butcherbirds and magpies, like many other Australian natives, don’t fit a northern hemisphere perspective on avian lives.  Grey butcherbirds are wonderful mellifluous singers, for example (though their tunes are less feted than the improvisational outpourings of the pied butcherbird).  But their carolling doesn’t fit the familiar songbird story.

Kaplan points out, for instance, that while northern hemisphere songbirds are most vocal during the breeding season, the Australian bush is often quietest at that time.  Amongst the much studied birds of high latitudes, males sing as part of a courting display.  In comparison, she observes, “Australian species often seem rather ‘egalitarian’ “.  For many Aussie birds, including butcherbirds “there is often no difference in the song between male and female, no marked difference in plumage or size, brooding and feeding of youngsters and defence” (Kaplan 2015 114).  I have to confess, this whole line of argument really appeals to me.

Magpie with fluff horizontal smaller

Magpie in spring

I also get sneaky pleasure at Kaplan’s observations about the cleverness of Australian birds.  Smarts, she suggests, are one strategy for coping with harsh environments and unreliable climatic conditions.  The humble budgie, a desert dweller, for instance, has one of the largest bird brains for its size, along with Cape York’s palm cockatoo, a formidable tool user.  These clever cockies select, shape and stash particularly excellent sticks, some to use as percussion instruments and others to improve nest-hole drainage.  Behavioural flexibility is a sign of sophisticated thinking: I guess musician cum plumber fits that bill quite nicely.  Birds like this, Kaplan thinks, playful, inquisitive and social, fill the ecological niche of monkeys in an Antipodean environment.

Australian birds often live much longer lives than their northern hemisphere equivalents. Permanent pair bonding means that galahs, for instance, or sulphur crested cockatoos may end up in a 60 year partnership.  Kaplan suggests that these long-term pairings require social nous and a sophisticated communication repertoire.  Forget relationship counselling, it could be time to take advice from the local cockies!

Young Australian birds are also likely to spend a long time hanging around with their parents learning the ropes – an extra year for grey butcherbirds, as much as four for white-winged choughs. Which explains the whiny teenagers I’ve been hearing everywhere lately.

It’s hilarious watching great hulking juvenile wattlebirds, indistinguishable from adults to my untrained eye, sitting in the Japanese maple tree out back, calling plaintively and endlessly for parental attention until someone hops up and gives them a lerp.  And last week on the way home, as I passed Butcherbird Corner, I heard the sounds of a youngster calling out that all-too-familiar refrain: “Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum!”.  It drives me mad when my kids do it, but on this occasion, pester-power put a smile on my face.  The lumbering youngster was a survivor of the Possum Bloodbath of 2015, demanding quality time (and a take-away) from its weary parent.

The youngbloods may hang around with mum and dad for ages, but they do get off the couch and help with the housework.  Raising your chicks with the help of older siblings and even unrelated adults – “cooperative breeding” – is surprisingly common in Australia, in comparison to elsewhere. If refraining from tearing your life-partner limb from limb with your own beak during the course of 60 years together is a challenge to a bird’s emotional control, how much more so is long-term living with the extended family?

This is an idea that Kaplan toys with throughout the book – that “negotiated living” might  “require… changes in powers of perception: a watchful eye, powers of observation and careful scrutiny of others… watching others means awareness of others and such habits can change from behaviour reading into mind reading” (Kaplan 2015 122).  Complex social lives go along with complex minds.

I rather enjoyed the sly dig at northern hemisphere birds (they sound nice, but could well be dim) that runs alongside Kaplan’s argument for the evolutionary value of cooperation.

in the competitive mode, learning (in males) is for a well-rehearsed performance: an Eistedfodd of dance or song. In the cooperative model, learning is for communication (Kaplan 2015 119)

Old leftie that I am, I can’t help liking the idea that cooperation, “egalitarianism” of the sexes and general smarts go along together.

Long beaked corellas giving me a funny look long.jpg

Long billed corellas giving me a funny look

I can’t vouch for the rigor of Kaplan’s science, but I loved reading her stories of the cleverness of Australian birds – their “versatility, resourcefulness, complex social and individual problem solving abilities” (Kaplan, 2015, 193).  Reading Bird Minds has given me plenty to look out for as I make my workaday way through the suburban territory we share.

11 thoughts on “Thinking like a bird

    • Jealous! They are a rare visitor to my place. My dad lives in the Hunter, and gets pied butcherbirds regularly hanging out on his verandah. Apparently he teaches the butcherbirds to whistle new tunes, and the butcherbird teaches him some! I am still hoping to catch them in the act one day when I visit.

  1. Really enjoyed this piece – great photos, and the pied butcherbird duet in the video is a beautiful thing! Can confirm first hand a general dimness of antipodean (i.e. N hemisphere) birds – there are not so many of them, and they don’t seem to be as active or communicative – though I like the crows – great hulking bastards of things…

    • Glad you like it, Russell! I have faith in Kaplan’s scientific wellie, but I began to doubt my own “Ozzie ozzie ozzie, oy oy oy” response to her argument for the advanced thinking of Australian birds after a while! RB hasn’t voiced his opinion on the matter, but I well remember his story of a Scottish raven, having demolished the contents of a tin of sardines, repeatedly picking it up flying in the air, and dropping it right next to the lunching hillwalkers. Subtle eh? So maybe they’re not all slow on the uptake up in the high latitudes. But I remember how quiet it is, especially in the winter – I especially missed the carolling of magpies when I lived over there. Hoping to get more familiar with pied butcherbird song too – according to one of my colleagues, Hollis Taylor, they are truly extraordinary improvisational musicians…

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  3. Really interesting piece, Nicole. I especially liked the discussion on songbirds. Did Kaplan have anything to say about kookaburras?

    • Hey Kara, thanks for the kind thoughts, and sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to you. I wasn’t really reading Kaplan with kookaburras in mind, so had to go back and check!! (library e-books really are a pain!). Yep kookaburras are really smart. Kaplan tells of an observer spotting a kookaburra “playing” with a stone, as if it was a snake, for a full three minutes. They live in family groups and do cooperative breeding. That makes them sound lovely and altruistic towards their family members, but actually the parents let the chicks duke it out for pole position – often the weaker chicks starve to death because the parents let the firstborn one outgrow and outfeed it!! Nonetheless, when they get older they hang around and help to feed the younger siblings, which is slightly weird. The males and females are pretty similar to look at too, which fits with the smarts = egalitarian theory!!

  4. I’ve seen a couple of short reviews of Kaplan’s book and have been keen to read it myself so thanks for giving me even more motivation. The sentence that most stuck out for me though was that co-operation, “egalitarianism” of the sexes and general smarts go along together… 😉 Excellent pics and entertainment value as usual, Nic. I think the locals here regard me as a “bumbling stalker” with “a chunky camera swinging around my neck” too so we have that in common too. I’ve been amazed at the intelligence, memory and creativity of crows and parrots over the years. I think we often under-estimate their intelligence because they don’t have limbs to manipulate objects like we do. Loved the post! 🙂

    • Thanks Jane! I think you’re dead right – humans look for forms of intelligence (bodies, lifestyles, ways of communicating) that mirror their own. I don’t find it a stretch to see these long-lived birds as intelligent. In some ways I think it is even harder for us to understand that, say, octopus, that only live for a few years and have brains spread out around their tentacles – so very alien to us – are smart!! They are, but that doesn’t stop us eating them in a salad eh? Glad to hear I’m not the only bumbler around!! Thanks for reading, as always!

  5. Hey Nic, Nice wrap up and terrific pictures. I’m nearly finished reading Bird Minds and have really enjoyed understanding the recent leaps forward in this area of science. And all of the fascinating anecdotes. It’s interesting that so many aspects of intelligence that were just arrogantly assumed to be only found in humans, are now being detected in animals. The more intuitive / less sciencey part of me just rolls my eyes and says ‘derrrrr’. 🙂 Cheers, Paula

    • I know what you mean about the “derrrr” response, Paula. Some colleagues and I were reading an academic article that argued at length that you might interpret the behaviour of some (captured) primates as a refusal to participate in research studies – a refusal of consent as it were. We were all going “derrrr!” in just that kind of way! I guess given the kind of evidence of intelligence that is acceptable to more experimental/”rigorous” traditions, showing something and “knowing” something (through experience) are quite different things… I think that’s one of the things I liked most about Kaplan’s book – she seems to credit observation as giving really meaningful information. I’ve spotted your review of Kaplan – I’ll have to have a look and see the different things you noticed! It’s always interesting seeing how differently others read the same books… Thanks again for reading!

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