‘There is the mammal way and there is the bird way.’ This is one scientist’s pithy distinction between mammal brains and bird brains: two ways to make a highly intelligent mind. But lately, scientists have taken a new look at bird behaviours they’ve previously dismissed as anomalies.
What they’re finding is upending the traditional view of how birds live, how they communicate, forage, court, survive. They’re also revealing the remarkable intelligence underlying these activities, abilities we once considered uniquely our own – deception, manipulation, kidnapping, infanticide, but also, ingenious communication between species, collaboration, altruism and play. Some of these behaviours are biological conundrums that seem to push the edges of – well – birdness: A mother bird that kills her own infant sons, and another that selflessly tends to the young of other birds. Young birds that devote themselves to feeding their siblings and others so competitive they’ll stab their nestmates to death. Birds that give gifts and birds that steal, birds that dance or drum, that paint their creations or paint themselves, and birds that summon playmates with a special call – and may hold the secret to our own penchant for playfulness and the evolution of laughter.