Chickadees are smarter than their tiny heads might indicate. The round little genus of birds has long been a delight for birders, but, more recently, they’ve become a fascinating study species for behavioral scientists, too!
Previously, I wrote on crow intelligence in Crows Aren't Bird-brained, mentioning how crows shine as an example above most other birds - and, indeed, other animals, in their intellect. But, that perspective was admittedly limited and, in actuality, biology is actively discovering that our collective scientific perspective on avian intelligence is also limited!
Chickadee studies around the globe are reshaping the narrative of avian intelligence. Discover why, according to animal research, being called bird-brained might actually be a compliment.
Chickadees Have Unmatched Spatial Memory
In the early 1980s, scientists noticed the black-capped chickadee’s remarkable ability to recall a significantly large number of food storage locations they create in their habitat. The study found that not only do they know where to return to, but can also remember what sorts of food are stored where, and in what quantity they are available. Since this experiment, other studies have confirmed this with other species of the chickadee, making it clear that chickadees are particularly good at this sort of brain activity.
It's clear that chickadees have excellent spatial memory, and more recent studies have shown that they are able to memorize thousands of food cache locations for weeks at a time - I have a strong sense that many of us humans (including myself) wouldn’t be able to accomplish such a feat as well as these little birds. Note here that some studies saw this successful recall skill after only a single moment of caching! Personally, I’d need some repetition to even approach an ability like this.
Also, according to an article published in 2016, titled Individual variation in spatial memory performance in wild mountain chickadees from different elevations, the chickadee’s ability to remember a large collection of locations is variable, unique to each individual, and can be improved upon with training. They also have been found to experience the expansion of their brain’s hippocampus region seasonally, which showcases an incredible display of neuroplasticity.
Chickadees Have An Incredible Language Full of Sophisticated Mechanics
In addition to a remarkable memory, recent studies have also found that the various chirps and gargles of chickadees are incredibly sophisticated - far more than we’ve previously conceived. They are so complex and mechanically sophisticated, in fact, that it qualifies as a “language” by the standards of structural linguistics.
Efforts to decipher the language of chickadees are already underway, and we’re starting to crack the code of what their various noises mean. The number of times they chirp “dee” after their initial “chick”, for example, correlates with measurements of perceived threat. According to American Scientist, chickadees produce more “dee” notes in their calls when smaller, more threatening avian predators are present near them.
The birds also have a gargling call used to determine rank in populations of chickadees among many other complex calls that convey a surprising amount of sophisticated information to each other. And we’re not the only species that are deciphering it - Chickadees are often found in mixed-species flocks acting as the scouts, with evidence that other birds like nuthatches and woodpeckers are listening to their warnings of predators and tidings of found resources.
Chickadees Also Show Signs of Other Forms Of Intelligence (But More Research is Necessary)
Though research must still be administered to confirm more about the extent of chickadee intelligence, there are several indicators that there may be more aspects of their intelligence of note. They’re known to be remarkably friendly, for example, even to human researchers, which may indicate a significant level of social intelligence. In addition, there’s a plethora of anecdotes that showcase the genius genus’ ability to learn, act fearlessly, search expertly, and even modify their behaviors based on external environmental conditions.
Clearly, there’s much we’ve yet to discover about the tiny chickadee.
As scientists continue to discover more about bird intelligence and behavior, it is becoming more clear that the preconception of avian "stupidity" is false across the board.
It's certainly of note that the avian species that are currently considered intelligent by scientists are the most common on earth - to me that points to the fact that they’re not particularly brilliant in comparison to other birds, but instead have simply been the easiest to study in large quantities thus far.
It’s reasonable, then, to suppose that as we continue to study the less cosmopolitan species, we’ll likely find more extraordinary examples of intelligence from our feathered friends. Eventually, those examples may become more commonplace to the point that we may consider class Aves a brilliant collection of creatures - and then permanently alter the meaning of bird-brained.
Interested in learning more? Check out these articles on chickadees below. They didn’t fit in the scope of this article, but they’re fabulous reads nonetheless:
- Smart is the new sexy: female mountain chickadees increase reproductive investment when mated to males with better spatial cognition
- A test of the adaptive specialization hypothesis: population differences in caching, memory, and the hippocampus in black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapilla).
- Environmental Influences on Spatial Memory and the Hippocampus in Food-Caching Chickadees.