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A sign of intelligence, or a symptom of illness?

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Old Friday 15th February 2019, 07:40   #1
ChrisKten
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A sign of intelligence, or a symptom of illness?

The easiest way to observe bird behaviour is to feed birds in your garden... I've been doing this for many hours each day for years. I've posted before about Jay, Crow, Sparrowhawk, and Pigeon behaviour... all of which I see at close range all year round - the Pigeon threads have never been the most popular, but they are often the easiest birds to study. Pigeons are very adaptable and surprisingly (at least to those that see them as Vermin) intelligent - but if the behaviour that I'm about to describe is anything to go by, and if it's not just a sign of illness and/or is in fact common to other species, Pigeons might be smarter than even I imagined.

So, birds hide illness/weakness - probably better than any other animal. Birds can be very ill without showing any obvious (to humans, at least) signs or symptoms... until they're too ill/weak to hide it, which is when it's often too late to help them. Individual birds that are seen regularly, and are unique-enough to stand out from the rest of the flock (maybe one of only a few white/brown/black ones etc), have unique habits - where they go after landing in the garden - favourite perch - where they land on me (only a few favour landing on my head, most prefer my arms and hands) - how easily they access difficult to reach food, etc. So there are individual birds that I can confidently identify.

A known bird that is behaving oddly is likely ill or injured... most obvious sign is when the rest of the birds are spooked and fly off, leaving one bird alone on the ground (although not always, as some birds learn that a neighbour opening a window isn't a threat, so continue feeding as the others fly off). A regular bird that is suddenly pestered by other birds (in the case of Pigeons, males trying to mate with it regardless of whether the bird is a female), or attacked/bullied by other birds, is an obvious sign of illness/injury/weakness. But there's another sign of illness that is more subtle, and is almost impossible to notice... unless you watch birds for hours.

Sometimes a bird will feed with the flock, but not actually feed. The bird will rush to the seed and bend forward to get seed - get to within a fraction on an inch of the seed, but not actually open it's bill to pick up the food. This will be repeated for other seeds as the bird mimics the other feeding birds in the flock. It behaves like the rest of the birds, so isn't bullied - it doesn't stand out from the rest, so isn't more likely to be selected by a predator. So this would seem like a good strategy for a vulnerable bird. But is that what it is, a strategy? Or is it an illness that affects vision and depth perception, preventing the bird from getting the seed?

(I should add that all of the birds displaying this behaviour eventually showed more definite signs of illness later, some didn't survive; so I'm sure that they was ill.)
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Old Sunday 17th February 2019, 13:39   #2
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A very interesting observation. I am reminded of the way a fox in a chicken coop will kill all the hens it can because its instinct is to kill available and vulnerable food, and in nature an abundance of confined and vulnerable food just doesn't occur in this way. It strikes me as a possibility that the pigeons are similarly being stimulated into beginning the feeding process by the actions of the rest of the flock and the ready availability of food. The fact that they didn't in fact feed suggests to me that they had a problem with some aspect of the physical act of feeding that prevented them from completing the feeding process by picking up the food and swallowing it. This repeated behaviour could be explained by the pigeon not being able to understand why it could not complete the feeding process but being repeatedly stimulated into repeating it by the actions of the other birds and the availability of the food. Possibly.

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Old Sunday 17th February 2019, 16:59   #3
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Thanks for replying, Lee.

Yes, I guess that could be the case - a mixture of instinct/reflex as a reaction to a physical symptom of illness. I suppose it would depend on what, if any, thought process was involved.

Like, was it purely reflex with no real thought or planning - or was it a strategy - 'If I look different, the others will bully me, or I'll stand out to that Cat on the wall behind the fence'... I guess we'll never know
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Old Sunday 17th February 2019, 18:37   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Troubador View Post
A very interesting observation. I am reminded of the way a fox in a chicken coop will kill all the hens it can because its instinct is to kill available and vulnerable food, and in nature an abundance of confined and vulnerable food just doesn't occur in this way. It strikes me as a possibility that the pigeons are similarly being stimulated into beginning the feeding process by the actions of the rest of the flock and the ready availability of food. The fact that they didn't in fact feed suggests to me that they had a problem with some aspect of the physical act of feeding that prevented them from completing the feeding process by picking up the food and swallowing it. This repeated behaviour could be explained by the pigeon not being able to understand why it could not complete the feeding process but being repeatedly stimulated into repeating it by the actions of the other birds and the availability of the food. Possibly.
I think you might be right, a simple case of what is referred to in the literature as “social facilitation” disengaged from its normal outcome. The poor pigeon. . ..
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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 16:19   #5
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Originally Posted by ChrisKten View Post
Thanks for replying, Lee.

Yes, I guess that could be the case - a mixture of instinct/reflex as a reaction to a physical symptom of illness. I suppose it would depend on what, if any, thought process was involved.

Like, was it purely reflex with no real thought or planning - or was it a strategy - 'If I look different, the others will bully me, or I'll stand out to that Cat on the wall behind the fence'... I guess we'll never know
Not quite what I was suggesting which was a mixture of instinct/reflex as a reaction to the behaviour of other birds of the same species and the availability of food.

Now if a crow was to exhibit such behaviour I might suspect a concious motive behind the behaviour......

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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 18:03   #6
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Originally Posted by Troubador View Post
Not quite what I was suggesting which was a mixture of instinct/reflex as a reaction to the behaviour of other birds of the same species and the availability of food.

Now if a crow was to exhibit such behaviour I might suspect a concious motive behind the behaviour......

Lee
Yeah, I sort of guessed what you meant wasn't how I chose to interpret it. But...

What makes you think a Crow is more intelligent than a Pigeon? Both species have passed the "Mirror Test" - last I checked they are the only two bird species that have passed the aforementioned test. Both species (which I observe daily) are successful at finding ways of defeating attempts to keep them from food. I guess the main difference is Crows can use tools, but maybe you could argue that Pigeons don't need to use tools - they are very successful at survival on their own. Which is more intelligent? A Crow succeeding in untying a string of Monkey Nuts with a bill suitable for the task? Or a Pigeon that watches the Crow, and next day attempts the same task, but doesn't have the bill to succeed? Or are they both as intelligent?


I'm perhaps not totally serious, but that's mainly because proving my point would be difficult. There are many studies testing the intelligence of Corvids... not many studies for Pigeons. So most "believe" the Crows are smarter, but watch Pigeons for years and I think many would be surprised just how smart they are. I could probably type pages of examples of what appears to be intelligent behaviour displayed by Pigeons that's just as convincing as that displayed by Corvids... but there'd be no point... nobody would care

I should add that Great Tits also appear smarter than the average bird, but maybe it's just that we, as Humans, aren't as smart as we like to think we are - but that's another topic entirely.
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Old Monday 18th February 2019, 18:23   #7
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At least some corvids (and parrots) have relatively larger brains than other birds, providing a physical basis for their superior performance on “intelligence tests”.
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Old Tuesday 19th February 2019, 07:30   #8
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I certainly believe Crows are intelligent and as far as I know, nobody has proved Pigeons are idiots, so I am certainly open to being convinced. The difficulty lies in separating instinctive behaviour from intelligence-driven behaviour. For example I have read several times that it is unlikely that waders exhibiting 'broken-wing' behaviour to lure humans or predators away from their nest do not know what they are doing, but I have never read a convincing explanation of how it is known that the waders do not know this. Even humans are subject to strong instinctive responses such as the horror/disgust/fright reaction of some people to a spider seen at a safe distance. In fact I have seen one person horrified and white faced when shown a the cast skin of a spider and he moved away from it with an expression of revulsion. So instinctive behaviour can be so strong it can overcome logic in humans (the cast skin was inanimate and incapable of movement or threatening behaviour).

Going back to your pigeon behaving like all the rest of the flock but not actually feeding, if this kind of 'copying' behaviour was successful in reducing predation because an individual didn't stand out as different from the flock and so attract the attention of Sparrowhawks, then improved survival could have perpetuated this behaviour down subsequent generations, but it still doesn't tell us whether it is purely an instinctive reaction or triggered by logical thought.
Here is an example that might, just, illustrate behaviour can be intermediate between these two extremes. Many years ago in Suffolk me and Troubadoris saw a Marsh Harrier fly away from a reedbed and begin gliding at a medium height over nearby meadows. We saw the flock of Starlings there that had been foraging busily on the ground take to the air and close-up together and begin flying in a holding pattern. This is a typical reaction to a raptor that typically takes its prey off the ground or surface of water. The Harrier passed under the flock of Starlings and gradually moved further away, quartering the meadows and clearly hunting. The Starling flock, still somewhat higher than the Harrier followed at a distance, clearly wanting to keep this 'ground-hunting' raptor in sight. With their eyes on the Harrier they didn't notice the Hobby that flew over our heads and like a guided missile flew in a straight line over the meadows and into the flock of Starlings and grabbed one.

It seemed to us that the Starlings instinctively took off from the ground to escape from the Marsh Harrier but then followed the Harrier in a way more suggestive of logic only to be undone by their concentration on the Harrier by failing to notice a different kind of threat approaching from behind.

Looking forward to future observations of pigeon behaviour!

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Old Tuesday 19th February 2019, 12:07   #9
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I think the main difficulty is in how we interpret what we observe and how we define intelligence, as it has to be based on how we think and how we see the world. Maybe I'm wrong, but I can't see how we can ever be sure what is instinct and what is not. I'm not even sure that we can be sure with our own species, let alone other species of animals that we can never understand... but anyway, here's some more anecdotes:


A couple of observations that illustrate interesting behaviour, I can't say whether or not any of this suggests intelligence:
  • Some of the older Pigeons have been visiting for over 5 years (there was a couple visited for over 8 years... gone now, Cats, Sparrowhawks or illness) - Two of the Crows have been visiting for about 8 years. Before the increase in Cat numbers, some of the Pigeons, and both Crows and that years young, perched on my fence. The Pigeons would perch there, the Crows would land there before swooping onto the grass for food. Then, last year, a Cat jumped up from the other side of the fence and almost got a Crow, managed to get a few tail feathers. Unsurprisingly, this changed the behaviour of the Crows and Pigeons, but not the other birds (Starlings, Chaffinches, Robin, etc). The Crows haven't landed on the fence since, and nor have the Pigeons. The other birds, even though they was in my trees at the time, appeared to ignore what happened, and continued perching on the fence.

    Does this suggest that Crows and Pigeons are smarter than the other birds?
    .
  • Years ago I fed nuts to the Pigeons by cracking open the monkey nut shells and feeding them the kernels inside - this made a distinct noise that, over time, the Pigeons associated with food. One day, one of the Squirrels was sitting in the garden opening a monkey nut, cracking the shell made the same sound that the Pigeons were used to hearing, so a number of them ran to the Squirrel - circled it and tried to take the kernels - walked round and round the Squirrel threatening it with wing-slaps (half-raising one wing while leaning in towards the Squirrel, which is how they begin fights between each other). Eventually, one Pigeon made contact, wing-slapped the Squirrel, which dropped the nuts. From that time forward, a number of the Pigeons bully the Squirrels for nuts - the Squirrels are eventually forced to eat where the Pigeons can't reach them.
    .
  • I have three bird baths in my garden; often there is one Pigeon in each bird bath. If I throw out food, the Pigeons will leave the bath and fly to the ground and join the main group to feed. The instant the food has gone, the three Pigeons will quickly return to the exact bath that they left. They even face the same direction they faced before they left to feed. So if,for example, they was facing West, even though they landed facing East, they will turn round to face West.
As a general rule, Pigeons learn from watching other animals - putting Peanut Butter on the wall for Starlings and Tits, meant that within minutes Pigeons had learned how to cling to a smooth vertical wall to feed. Health, size, and agility permitting, if one Pigeon learns a particular way of getting at food, the rest of the flock learns by watching it.
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Old Wednesday 20th February 2019, 06:40   #10
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Chris those are terrific observations. We have bird feeders and we need to control the presence of squirrels and woodpigeons as they monopolise the feeders and will sit their for hours if we let them. Our method is to squirt them with water from an old washing-up liquid bottle and they all know what it means now if I open the window and show them the bottle. The fly off or scamper off and mostly I don't need to squirt. So they have learned what the bottle in my hand means. Meanwhile the Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits etc that I never squirt have also learned and although they will stop feeding and turn to look at me if I open the window and show them the bottle, they never fly away because I have never squirted them.

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