Our birds are some of the smartest and longest lived birds in the world. Find out some of the weird and wonderful our birds get up to.
Kookaburra sitting in a tree
Kookaburra sitting in a tree

Kookaburras have adapted to become supreme bbq snag stealers. Photo: Carl Davies

Ask someone to name a unique Australian animal and most likely they’ll say kangaroo, platypus or koala. But we should also spare a thought for our unique birds.

Our parrots are not only visually spectacular – with splashes of every colour, in every size and shape – they are also some of the smartest and longest lived birds in the world. Our songbirds — ravens, honeyeaters, magpies, bowerbirds — have some of the greatest minds of the animal kingdom. They go fishing, remember people’s faces, mimic other species and even play hide-and-seek. They stay younger for longer than Northern Hemisphere species and can live twice as long.

This is no coincidence. Parrots and songbirds evolved in East Gondwana (now Australia), which was spared from that dinosaur-obliterating asteroid 66 million years ago. Ever since then, their homeland has been a warzone of natural selection:  floods, droughts, insect plagues, cyclones, and cataclysmic bushfires.

“This continent is terribly fickle,” said Professor Gisela Kaplan, an expert on animal behaviour and bird cognition, “[disasters] create sudden, unexpected problems in terms of the production of insects, flowering and fruiting plants. There’s just not enough food around.”

When there is nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep, populations must adapt or perish. That is why our birds have some very special abilities. Many have great spatial memory — how to find a pond in the middle of the desert — we see childhoods, food preparation, and centenarians. This exquisite set of adaptations is the key to survival down under.

But genes only get animals so far, these behaviours also require lots of practice and learning.

Sulphur crested cockatoos tug-o-warring with a straw. Photo: Jade Craven/Flickr

Birds learn for life

Nest building is a superb and distinctly avian adaptation. Once thought to be almost robotic, we now know “nest building isn’t simple, it isn’t automatic, it isn’t instinct,” says Kaplan. “Weaver birds make elaborate hanging nests. Juvenile males build them but they fail. They learn by trial and error”.

Like us, birds must spend large chunks of their lives learning. In 2008, birds, like primates, were shown to have mirror neurons – segments of the brain committed to cognitively emulating others for complex behaviours.

Bird brains needed to find food  

Our arid and often nutrient-poor country has forged bird brains capable of feats of intellect not seen anywhere else in the animal kingdom (ignoring us, of course).

Ravens love bread, but bread means more than food to their sophisticated minds. Ravens have been observed picking up bread, flying it to a pond and placing it in the water. The bird waits until fish begin to nibble at the bread and catches them, enjoying a big seafood dinner instead of a little bit of bread.

Crow using bread to catch fish

Fish are food, not friends. Photo: Baloozer/Flickr

For ravens, bread is an abstract token, explains Professor Kaplan, “The animal is actually delaying a response, or planning ahead. They are trading it in for a better meal, and that is deferred gratification – we have that as humans. It’s now been shown that birds have the capability of planning for the future.”

Professor Kaplan also relayed another example of delayed gratification, a potentially scorchy one.

“The black kite — not only do they cooperate and play together — but they’re probably the only bird species that has learned that fire can produce food. When there’s a grass fire, they pick up a piece of ember on the unburnt side, as long as it’s still burning, fly it to a dry grass area and start a new fire. And then they wait. They look through the charcoal for lizards and insects and clean them up.”

To overcome food shortages, our birds also work out ways to eat things most other creatures can’t.

While the cane toad has ravaged much of our native wildlife, crows and currawongs have found a solution. They flip over their poisonous meal, where there are no poison glands, and eat the toads’ bellies.

“There are [also] the shrike tits, which have learned that there are certain caterpillars which are very toxic because of the plants they feed on. The gut is so toxic that it would kill a bird. They split them open, take the digestive canal out and then eat the rest.”

Gordon Ramsay, eat your heart out (actually, I imagine that’s precisely what the birds would do).

Bird behaviour

This type of complex reasoning also helps in other parts of bird life: socialising, bonding, and deception. Ravens, for example, are very socially savvy.

Like bone-burying dogs, ravens will hoard excess food. But not only do they remember where their own caches are hidden, but also their flock mates’. Understandably, when hiding food, ravens try their best to be secretive about it.

But their intelligence goes beyond remembering where their friend’s stash is; when burying their own food, they’ll remember specifically which ravens were watching them. When a hidden cache is approached by a bird that observed it being buried, the cache will quickly be moved. However, when their cache is approached by a naïve bird, the caching bird will not bother moving it.

Kids can’t even do that.

So, next time someone asks you to name a unique Australian animal, spare a thought for our beautiful, unique and highly intelligent birds.

 

Want to read more about amazing Australian bird behaviour?

Get a copy of Professor Gisela Kaplan’s book Bird Minds: Cognition and Behaviour of Australian Native Birds, now a winner of the prestigious Whitley Award for Behavioural Zoology.

26 comments

  1. I have a hanging water feeder in the tree just outside my bedroom window for the birds. A pee wee was continually coming at first light (which in summer can be 4.30) and calling furiously. I jumped up a couple of times to shoo it away at that hour but could not see the pee wee. Eventually I realized it was a butcher bird mimicking a pee wee. He is so quiet and hangs around my garden all the time. However I have moved the water feeder to another tree to avoid the early morning call right into my bedroom. He didn’t mind.

    1. Such clever birds those butcher birds

  2. I used to leave an ice cream container of water near the front door for a stray cat & a number of times after returning home from work would find it on the lawn upright but empty. This was quite a puzzle until one weekend I saw a crow dragging the container with it’s beak across the paving to the lawn where there were some gaps & tipping the water out. Knowing crows like to dunk some food I guessed the water was too deep so it was tipped out where it was more accessible. Currently I give some mince to a crow when it calls at the front door.
    I love birds – they all have their own personality.

  3. Kookaburras are incredibly smart I used to hand feed a family group on my property in North Queensland. They used to bring in their young each year to introduce them. When they had a poor day hunting they would come and sit on the servers window and tap on the glass and ask to be fed. One day I was going to turn the watering system on in one of the gardens and one of my kook as flew in front of me close enough to brush its wings on my chest. Naturally I stopped it flew into a nearby tree and gave their warning call. I looked up thinking there might be a raptor around but there wasn’t. I went to continue on my mission and again the bird flew in front of me again brushing my chest causing me to stop. In its tree it gave its warning cry. I then took a good look around and right next to the sprinkler I was going to turn on there was a very large eastern brown snake. I turned around and went to the house and got my friend a few bits of raw meat off cuts. I have also watched spangled drongos sit beside birds I have just fed sidle up to them like an immature kooks looking for a feed, tap them on the beak in the same way their young do and elicit the same conditioned feeding response. Birds are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

    1. That’s a great story. Magpies too can protect humans they consider part of their family. I had a similar experience when I was young. I was lying on the lawn asleep in the sun and one of our maggies swooped me and alarm called. I woke and sat up to find a brown snake heading across the lawn towards me.

    2. That story gave me chills! That’s amazing! I love kookas too- I’ve been trying to find out if they recognise faces, like magpies, coz I’ve got 2 kookas I feed daily from my tiny balcony from a tiny unit in suburban Sydney, and the other day I got home from shopping and they were both sitting outside on the clothes lines near the carpark where I park downstairs, the other side of the building to my unit (3rd and top floor), and I get the sense that they now know my routine!! They are so sweet! Sure enough, they were on my balcony by the time I got upstairs with my shopping!

  4. Kookaburras are usually watching your lunch in the park before you even know they’re there. Can’t fault the technique!

  5. We always laugh at the Sulphur Crested Cockatoos. They seem to play “chicken” with the traffic, especially along the Pacific Highway near Turramurra. Also intrigued about how flocks of birds seem to meet up at night in one tree and make a huge racket. Are they meeting to discuss their day?

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