On Intelligence – seeing the world a little sideways

So, recently on Twitter, there was a link to a story about a dolphin that had learned to bring back trash for fish. This is not new; a dolphin named Mr. Spock did much the same (the link also has other detailed examples of dolphin intelligence.) Riffing off the Star Trek bit, this article opines that the only reason that dolphins haven’t destroyed us is because of the lack of opposable thumbs.

Mate, Australian raptor birds are waaaay ahead of the dolphins. Okay, granted, they’re flushing out prey but apparently this is not new behaviour.

Raptors, including the whistling kite, are intentionally spreading grass fires in northern Australia, the paper argues. The reason: to flush out prey and feast.

“Black kites and brown falcons come to these fronts because it is just literally a killing frenzy, it’s a feeding frenzy, because out of these grasslands come small birds, lizards, insects, everything fleeing the front of the fire,” Bob Gosford, one of the authors of the paper, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in 2016.

The concept of fire-foraging birds is well established. Raptors on at least four continents have been observed for decades on the edge of big flames, waiting out scurrying rodents and reptiles or picking through their barbecued remains.

What’s new, at least in the academic literature, is the idea that birds might be intentionally spreading fires themselves. If true, the finding suggests that birds, like humans, have learned to use fire as a tool and as a weapon.

Gosford, a lawyer turned ethno-ornithologist (he studies the relationship between aboriginal peoples and birds), has been chasing the arson hawk story for years. “My interest was first piqued by a report in a book published in 1964 by an Aboriginal man called Phillip Roberts in the Roper River area in the Northern Territory, that gave an account of a thing that he’d seen in the bush, a bird picking up a stick from a fire front and carrying it and dropping it on to unburnt grass,” he told ABC.

Unfortunately, even this tactic isn’t enough to make much of a dent in the rabbit population.

They’re not the only smart birds; crows are known to be smart enough to use tools and are cheeky  – well, I think it might be because Canuck is trying to protect ‘his humans and his nest’ – turns out, crows can recognise human faces. And they hold grudges. Generational grudges – because it seems they CAN talk to each other, and are able to solve problems (see the tool usage has a purpose..) – and if anyone remembers the Aesop’s Fable about the Crow and the Pitcher – this was recreated by scientists, which might mean that the behaviour may have been observed long, long ago. Oh and if that wasn’t awesome enough, apparently they have discovered industry, by using stiff leaves and grass to manufacture knives, and used those to make other tools.

We should probably worry if the dolphins and the crows got together as allies, especially since, well, dolphins kill for fun.

Ravens apparently also are able to plan for the future and apparently can learn to barter as well as have the concept of delayed gratification (also, I didn’t know until know that a group of ravens is called ‘a conspiracy of ravens’, which I rather like). Interestingly enough, they have the concept of ‘unfairness/fairness‘ -which is really, really interesting. Be afraid if they ever learn about the idea of setting fires – because apparently some corvids have learned to disable fire alarms.

Crows Just Want to Have Fun
New Caledonian crows—at least those being observed in the lab—seem to use tools constantly, not just when they’re trying to get food. This poses some unexpected challenges for the scientists who work with them. The crows are so adept at using tools that researchers have come into the lab to find the fire alarms disassembled. And crows are just as likely to try prodding around in an electrical socket as a test tube. If you thought it was difficult to child-proof your living room, imagine crow-proofing a university research facility.

Showing that monkeys share some rather negative traits with human beings, they go to war, prostitute themselves, and are extremely tribal.

Personally, if there was going to be a ‘next generation of Earth’s overlords’ I vote for octopi and possibly squid. Yeah, I think we’ll have ithillids. There’s Inky, who escaped from his aquarium and got back into the wild, and octopi can survive brief periods out of water (imagine what happens if they DO evolve the ability to breathe out of water!); they make tools, play pranks, and mimic other dangerous predators. They can see outside of their tanks, escape and get at other fish:

In the 1980s, handlers at the aquarium were mystified by the disappearance of several rare fish that were the subject of biological study. Nobody could figure out where they were going — until a researcher arrived early one day to find an octopus perched over the tank.

The aquarium determined the sneaky cephalopod had been flopping out of its tank, sliding across an aisle, and scaling the other tank to get extra food. When it was done eating, the sly sea creature would make the 3-foot journey home.

“At the time, nobody thought the octopus was capable of that,” aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said.

He said the facility has since been more careful in its containment of intelligent animals.

“If you go to our exhibits now, there is a variety of latches to secure the tank,” he said.

Octopi can learn to unscrew lids, undo fasteners, and open boxes, LaCasse said. Hours of design and testing went into the creation of the new exhibit, which will feature two giant Pacific octopi.


Wanna bet that’s not going to be enough after a while? Going from the replies to this tumblr page where people shared octopus stories, that is probably inevitable (the stories are cute, go read!) I actually think there is a possibility that cephalopods do recognise people’s faces, and might be able to express a form of gratitude – at least, going by the linked videos.

I’d be a little remiss if I didn’t mention parrots, having a Monk Parakeet in my household. I’m not really sure yet if he has the interest in tool use, but he does know how to communicate in his own limited way (we’re hoping he will learn to properly say words) – he makes a happy “mmm~!!!” noise when he cuddles (presses his body/head into your cheek) and purrs when he’s happy. Originally he would simply mimic the noises we made at him, but he knows how to apply it; he makes a kissy noise when he touches his beak to someone’s lips or cheek, has particular chirps that are very close to the tone of ‘mummy’ and ‘dad’, does the ‘coo-ee~!’ when he wants attention,  has a ‘thanks’ noise (very similar to ‘kiss’) and will let us know when he wants to be put to bed. (Chirps and calls at our shoulder, or from the perch; if asked “Na-nights time?” he’ll bob up and down and chirp his happy noise.) He also has a sad sounding chirp (usually employed if he is put in the big cage and left alone for a little while, or if he sees someone eating something and isn’t given a taste.)

The cheeky little bugger also has learned to laugh at oddly appropriate times – some months back when I was still playing L2, I  died in the game and Riley started doing this evil little ‘heh heh heh heh heh’ – which was heard by my clanmates, who asked ‘who the fuck is laughing that evil laugh?’ When I said it was my parrot, one of the others said “That little fucker started right after you got killed!” When playing other games, he has a mocking “Ha ha~” or “HA HA HA HA HA HA HA~!!!!” – and he only does it when the person he’s watching dies – even in games where you use different characters with very different designs, such as Heroes of the Storm. Vincent tells me that he’s starting to try sing along to the music in Skyrim. There’s some MMD music videos that Riley ‘dances’ to as well, bobbing up and down and skittering from side to side on his perch to the music.

Since he is trained to step up onto the finger, he communicates that he doesn’t want to by fluffing up (showing that he’s relaxed), purring, and putting his head down against the surface of what he’s on (someone’s shoulder, perch, etc.)

The Housemate once recounted how he had to put Riley in the cage (and closed the door) because he needed to walk around a lot, and was afraid he’d step on the bird. Five minutes after Housemate had gone back upstairs, Riley strolled back into the room, having climbed up the staircase and he knows where Housemate is. He was returned to the cage a second time, and a third, and on the fourth time, a paper clip was employed to lock the door.

Ten minutes pass and Housemate hears this cheeky, satisfied chirp from behind him. Turning, he sees Riley strolling into the room, paper clip twisted beyond recognition in his beak, and ‘looking like a smug little bastard up at me as if to say ‘What now, mothafucker?!’

Housemate got the smaller sleeping cage and put it on a stool, out of the way, and let Riley sit on top. Apparently he was content to stay there quietly at that point.

Riley also communicated extreme displeasure to Rhys once, after Rhys was gone for a few days. After a greeting ‘chi-chiirrrp!’ he began to grumble. “Raark, raarrrrk” from the perch. Grumbles as Riley climbed down the cage, grumbling as he got on Rhys’ finger. Grumbling as he ‘walked’ and climbed up Rhys’ arm to perch on his shoulder. Grumble even as he touched his beak to Rhys’ cheek. ‘Bitch bitch, complain complain, scold scold’ Rhys described, for a good twenty or thirty minutes, as if complaining about Rhys’ having been away. Finally, a very amused Rhys gave him head scritchies, and kissed Riley, whereupon Riley fluffed, and ‘gave a begrudging little kissy back.’ Forgiven!

I have to say though, I did have the rather entertaining thought, after all this, of hawks and wedge-tailed eagles plotting to ‘get at the source of bunnies.’ But it’s late, and I probably shouldn’t chase that thought any further…

2 thoughts on “On Intelligence – seeing the world a little sideways

    1. R.K. Modena Post author

      Yeah, except I’m not sure if cephalopods survive their offspring (ergo, live beyond spawning.) I’m too sleepy at the moment to try look it up (my brain is saying ‘they should… some of them anyway.’)

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