Let's Reminisce: Dumb humans vs. smart animals
By Jerry Lincecum
Apr 1, 2019
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As a child growing up on a farm I noticed that some of the animals we raised were not “dumb” in the sense of stupid.  For example, my first horseback ride was rudely interrupted when “Old Buck,” my grandfather’s horse, figured out that he could easily rid himself of the small boy riding him when little Jerry dismounted to pick some roadside flowers to take home to his mother.  Buck had already put in an afternoon’s work as he carried Granddaddy Jones a distance of several miles to enable him to check on his small herd of cows.  So Buck waited until Jerry was securely on the ground and then took off running for the house.  The incident created some consternation at home but Buck wasn’t punished.


In recent years scientists who study animal behavior have discovered and documented many examples of intelligent behavior by a great variety of species.  Here are a few that I have gleaned from a book by Michael Bright that bears the subtitle “Extraordinary Tales From the Animal World.”  Ravens have long been noted as intelligent, but did you know they can point with their beaks in the way we humans gesture with our fingers?  They use this behavior to attract attention and point out objects to one another, sometimes offering moss, stones, and twigs to other ravens.


Unlike ravens, pigeons are regarded by most of us as pretty stupid.  Would you believe they have the ability to count items?  We think of counting as a rather abstract concept that is restricted to humans and our closely related primate relatives like chimpanzees.  But recent research has demonstrated that pigeons can count, and also they will place a number of images in numerical order depending on the number of items in the picture.


We like to boast about the size of human brains and attribute our superior intelligence to our big brains.  But it has recently been shown that despite having a brain that is one-millionth the size of ours, paper wasps not only recognize the faces of other wasps (much like we do) but actually remember those individuals and related events for at least a week.  Since I’m currently having some issues with my own short-term memory, I find this wasp behavior especially impressive.  People often get organ transplants from pigs; what about having a wasp brain transplant?


The successful use of tools is another behavior we humans think of as limited to ourselves and our close relatives among other animal species.  But one species of nuthatch native to the Southeastern US holds a piece of bark in its bill to help it dig for insects.  A woodpecker finch found in the Galapagos Islands uses a cactus spine to prick grubs, making them easier to grab, and an Egyptian vulture uses stones to crack open ostrich eggs.


Green herons in North America have been observed placing feathers and pieces of biscuit on the water surface to attract fish which they can then catch easily.  In Japan crows wait for cars to stop at traffic lights and then drop on the road walnuts they have collected.  When the light turns green, the cars crush some of the nuts; at the next red light the crows swoop down and collect the mashed up kernels.  Similarly, gulls sometimes drop oysters on roads for the same reason.


Even more impressive, I think, is the behavior of an orange-dotted tuskfish that digs clams from the sandy seafloor and carries them to a suitable rock that he can use like an anvil.  He cracks the clamshells by repeatedly smashing them against the hard rock.  Other species of wrasse, a family of brightly colored marine fish common to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, have also been seen using a rock as an anvil to harvest food from clams.


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: