Questions of the Day: No. 540

By Troy Headrick

Yesterday, on a hot day in South Texas, I spent a portion of the afternoon mowing the grass in my backyard.  While doing so, I witnessed something amazing.  In fact, what I saw made such an impression that it inspired the questions I’m about to put to you. 

As soon I started running my mower across the terrain, a sizeable group of crow-like birds began to fly in from all directions and land very near my mower.  In fact, they seemed not to be at all intimidated by the loud machine. 

I had seen this happen before, each time I mowed.  The birds knew that all manner of edible life-forms would be easier to spot in the much shorter grass.  In fact, I noted that several of them were immediately successful.  Some held tiny lizards and worms and such in their beaks as they strolled around me while I worked.  Furthermore, they seemed to understand that they had to act quickly before their prey had time to realize what had taken place and therefore conceal themselves by burrowing down deeper into the turf, nearer the roots.

This hunting and gathering continued the whole time I mowed.  Furthermore, the birds would follow me as I moved from one part of the yard to another.  It occurred to me that I was being used by them to further their own purposes.

This was a wonderful example of animal intelligence, of creatures thinking critically, behaving opportunistically, and doing some pretty clever problem solving.

So, with my story in mind, here are my questions:    

What are your thoughts about the “intelligence” of nature?  Have you ever witnessed any animals or plants behaving in ways that seemed to be amazingly ingenious?  If so, please share what you’ve seen. 

I look forward to reading the many interesting stories you include in your comments.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

If you’d like to see some of Troy’s art, have a look.

27 thoughts on “Questions of the Day: No. 540

    1. Does the seal show up after you arrive or is it there when you get to your fishing spot? Sounds like he might be eating pretty well. Thanks for the story.

      1. It’s already there by the time I am. It makes it difficult to fish, but it doesn’t happen often anyhow, so I’m also sort of happy to be able to see it interacting around with me in the wild like that.

  1. There’s a lot of research on this, both among animals and plants. A dying fir will transfer carbon to nearby trees through connections in the root system, and will warn other trees of impending danger. Plant roots contain the same enzyme that provides humans with the sense of touch.

    Crows have been witnessed using tools.

    One of my cats was a firm pacifist, would not kill anything, and liked to sit on the deck chattering with birds, who would land next to him and chatter back. When another cat cornered and tried to kill a mole, he swiped the mole and carried it to a gap in our fence allowing the mole to escape unharmed.

    So yes, there is intelligence in the world beyond human hubris.

    One final note: one experiment on human reflexes determined that an electron couldn’t make it from hand to brain and return in time for the measured reaction. Meaning that some signal processing in humans is away from the brain. So where does intelligence reside, exactly? If what we believe about humans is only partly accurate, what do we actually know about other living things?

    1. The fir example was amazing. I wasn’t aware of that. It sounds like firs have a greater understanding of the common good than many Americans do.

      I’ve never heard of a cat that liked to befriend birds, but, honestly, I’m not surprised to hear about your cat. I’ve seen lots of interesting friendships among animals of different species. I guess animals don’t see “color” and differences the way some humans do.

      I’ve long thought that our notion that intelligence lies in the brain might be old-fashioned. After all, people have thought this for a long time. I recently read an article about scientists beginning to suspect that we have more than five senses and that some of our senses, like sight and smell, might actually “collaborate” to heighten each other in ways that wouldn’t be true if they worked alone.

      There is so much we still don’t understand about humans and life. I definitely agree that we humans have put ourselves on a pedestal. Not surprising for such an arrogant species.

      Thanks, Vic, you’ve educated me in this comment!

  2. There is a conceit that humans are somehow more evolved than “lower” forms of life are. That’s completely silly (and self-congratulatory) of course because every creature out there has just as long an evolutionary history as every other. To the extent that intelligence confers a survival advantage, ALL species have evolved to be as intelligent as their ecological niche requires them to be or they would have gone extinct.

    Many mammals have substantial problem-solving abilities, along with many birds. There are some very intelligent octopi and fish out there. We don’t give them full credit because their intelligence has been customized to their world, not ours.

    1. You make an amazingly insightful point in your last paragraph. We often don’t get to observe the true genius of creatures because they strut their stuff privately away from our observation. I wonder about all the amazingly brilliant things animals do that are never observed by human eyes.

      Humans like to think of themselves as the smartest of all animals. Well, most animals won’t destroy their own habitat. For example, birds won’t shit in their own nests. Humans “shit” everywhere. They trash the very world (and all its resources) that keep them alive. Intelligence? Not so much. Thanks Fred.

  3. I always admire and am impressed by the intelligence of nature, so much beauty and form and patterns and structure around me …

    1. Yes. Some might argue that all that form and structure indicates that a divine power is at work. I think it indicates that life itself is wonderous. Beauty and wonder is nature’s way of showing off and self-expressing. Thanks very much for the comment.

  4. If you were here in the Po Valley (Italy), typically you would see farmers in their fields plowing the soil being followed by long lines of small egrets and cattle egrets eating what comes up from the earth… walking behind the tractor… and keeping them company in the meanwhile 😀 Dozens of these white birds. A lot of fun to see!

    1. I’d actually love to be in the Po Valley right now. Actually, my wife and I love Italy very much. We’ve been there many times and have Italian friends who live approximately six months in Egypt (my wife’s home country) and six months in Venice. Your egrets sound a lot like my crows. It’s pretty clever to make someone else do the hard work while you reap a good portions of the rewards of that labor. The very rich have been living like that for a long time. Thanks for sharing your story. I get a clear image of those egrets in my mind…

  5. Corvids are particularly intelligent, but many birds and animals have learned to profit from our development, which is great because many of our developments DESTROY nature. When I was a child, blue tits would peck the top of a milk bottle to get at the cream inside. This no longer happens, because nowadays we buy milk from a supermarket in PLASTIC bottles. Shame.

    1. When I was a child, I lived with my maternal grandparents. They lived on a ranch a few miles out of a small town. I vividly recall going out in the morning with my grandfather to milk the cow. For the first few years of my life, I drank fresh cow’s milk straight from the source. It was a great place to live because we coexisted with plants and animals and the outside in a very cool way. I agree that too many of us have forgotten where we came from. My grandparents showed me that we came from nature, lived in nature, and protected it so it could protect us. I know I’ve gotten off topic, but, well, so what. I enjoyed your story about bygone times and you prompted me to go back some too, to make a withdraw from my memory bank.

  6. Wonderful post as usual! I have competing hummingbirds in my garden over my Mexican sunflower plant which is huge. I’ve even named them. My favorite is Shiloh who is very mellow and quite comfortable with me even hovering near where I sit to observe close to me! But when Darcy (much bigger and loud sucker of nectar) comes Shiloh will protect herself and fend off Darcy! It’s quite the amusement! I love all nature can you tell? Thanks for great material 😊

    1. Yes, I can tell you love nature. You also come across as a very observant person. Count yourself lucky. Too many move through the world with all their senses dulled to what’s going on around them. I love that you’ve gotten to know your hummingbirds and have even figured out their personalities. Having spent a lot of time around all sorts of animals myself, I’ve learned that they all have personalities, just like people do. We all need to learn to love and respect nature more. Thanks so much for your fun story and cool comment.

  7. In our backyard on our wooden fence was an old abandoned rag. But somewhere inside it, a weaver bird had laid her eggs and was raising her baby weaver birds. My mom was the first to discover the little nest and called me to witness the miracle. Little did we know that mother weaver bird was not far away and the moment we had satisfied our curiosity, she quickly came back to her children, I think to assure and comfort them.
    The following day, excited to have a peek at the babies again, we discovered that the nest was empty…. Mama weaver bird must have got suspicious of us discovering her treasure pot and decided to relocate her babies!

    1. You upset mama, didn’t you? Well, you meant well, but she had no idea what your real plans were, so she had to play it safe and hide the youngsters away. I enjoyed your story very much and enjoyed our recent conversations. I hope things are going well for you, Jermena. Stay in touch and we’ll keep talking. Thanks so much.

  8. I believe that nature has abilities beyond our scope of understanding. We used to have a natural herbs grown in our place whenever the spot is changed it appears dull. As an experiment we continued to check its growth and observed it does better when placed in the sunny spot but dries out when moved. So what to make of this? It has a way to correspond with us of its dislikes.

    1. Yes! The plants are talking to you. They just aren’t using English or any other human language. Humans (unfortunately) have mostly stopped paying attention to what the natural world is trying to say to us. We keep on damaging it and abusing it, and it’s showing us, in many different ways, how unhappy we’re making it. We better start listening! Thanks for leaving such a lovely comment.

  9. All the time I witness my animals. Some are more intelligent than others. But some animals also have a sense of humor which speaks to me of intelligence as well. You and others mentioned crows. The crows in our yard love harassing one of my roosters. They will play tricks on him, act hurt, and then when he gets close to attack, they fly to the fence and laugh at him.

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