“Bird Brain” is a Compliment!

Steller's Jay_BlkForest_20100424_LAH_3443Crows can make tools, or unzip your backpack to extract your lunch. Macaws have been known to open complicated latches their cages in order to escape their captors, demonstrating insight into complex problem solving. Jays can remember where they stashed each and every one of thousands of nuts. And I knew an African Gray Parrot that, in an effort to keep its owners home (and therefore receive more attention), mimicked the telephone’s ring every time anyone started to leave the house. In fact, many birds are exceptionally intelligent. But how do they fit those smarts into their tiny brains?

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A Murder of Crows

American Crow_PuebloCityPark-CO_LAH_8923I know a lot of people don’t like crows. There’s something sort of spooky about them. Maybe that’s because they’re black, and black birds seem to encourage superstition. Why else would a flock of crows be called a “murder”? It’s true that they’re not as colorful as most songbirds, and they do make pigs of themselves at feeders, but crows are fascinating. With Halloween fast approaching, this seems an appropriate time to take another look at these very common and highly intelligent birds.

You can learn all about the taxonomy and biology of crows from a variety of websites. I recommend The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Geographic, and Audubon for starters. It’s interesting information, but crows are more than a list of facts—much more. They are now considered one of the smartest animals in the world! Want proof?

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I Love Magpies

black-billed-magpie-blackforestco-2008oct08-lah-005r-1You can’t miss them. Black-billed Magpies are big, noisy, and distinctive in their black, navy, and white plumage. Their elegant long tails add to the tuxedo effect. They’re basically crows in formal attire.

In addition to the mixed scrub, woodlands, and fields of their native habitat, Magpies have adapted to life in urban areas. They’ve done well, and are common in most of the western U.S. Here in Colorado, they’re frequently considered “trash birds.”

Why do many people look at magpies with such disdain? Maybe it’s their tendency to dine on road kill and other carrion, or their occasional habit of killing and eating the eggs and nestlings of other birds, that draws so much criticism. But magpies have their endearing qualities as well. Maybe we don’t like them because we don’t know them well enough.

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