Video transcript: Stealthy scrub-jays display social intelligence to rival great apes

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September 2009

Professor Nicola Clayton
For years birds have been associated with the derogatory term ‘bird brain’ but our research on one particular group of birds, members of the crow family, that includes the jays and the ravens, suggest that, in fact, they are brainy birds.

The jays engage in quite complex social behaviour and it is here that you really see how intelligent they are.  These birds hide food for the future and they have amazing memories of where they have stashed their hidden caches. And because the birds are both protectors of their own caches and potential thieves of other birds’ caches they really do go to great lengths to prevent other birds from stealing their food.

For example, if other birds are around, they will often hide out of sight. Our latest research suggests that they don’t only use visual clues but also auditory ones. If other birds are nearby and can hear them but cannot see them then in fact they are as quiet as a mouse.

What we do is to allow the birds to cache and we give them one of their favourite foods which is pine nuts which they can eat and also hide and we give them the choice of two trays. One that contains jingly jangly gravel that makes quite a lot of noise and then they get a quiet tray, one that is full of a substrate that doesn’t make much noise. If they cache when another bird can hear them but cannot see them then indeed they cache in the quiet trays.

We now know that these birds are very smart. It’s not just their social skills. For example we know that members of the crow family can make and use tools. We also know that they can think about the past and plan for the future and these are all abilities that were thought to be unique to human beings. What this research shows is that complex cognition is not restricted to the province of the primates, that members of the crow family have these abilities too. This suggest that intelligence in the crows and in the apes must have evolved independently because they shared a common ancestor way back when about 300 million years ago.