#2. Jay Birds Hold Funerals for Their Dead
Lee Karney, US Fish and Wildlife Service via Discovery
You probably assume that human beings are the only creatures that hold ceremonies to grieve for the dead, and for the most part you're right. Funerals are a rather counterintuitive concept, especially given that, if there's something nearby that's killing members of your species, the last thing you want to do is gather all your friends and relatives in that place at the same time.
But there's at least one other animal that comes together in these times of anguish -- birds. Specifically, in a study conducted in 2012, researchers at the University of California, Davis discovered that the western jay has a tendency to hold a kind of funeral ceremony upon discovery of a dead colleague.
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"And though Jay could not fly through that window, he will forever fly in our hearts ..."
Don't worry: They didn't study this by approaching a flock of jays and shooting one of them with a sniper rifle. Fortunately, the scientists already had a dead jay on hand. So they just dropped it where others were foraging and watched the live birds' reactions to it. When one of them discovered the dead bird, it let out a loud cry that attracted other birds of the species, which came from all directions to gather around their fallen comrade in what the researchers described as "cacophonous aggregations." The attending birds were so distressed that they halted their usual foraging behavior for more than a day. The scientists presumably watched their devastated little bird tears and wails of sadness and nodded, taking notes.
The birds were also able to distinguish between actual dead birds and ingenious wooden decoys made to look like dead birds. In much the same way as we don't fall to our knees in anguish when we see a mannequin lying in the street, the jays were at least savvy enough to realize when they were being taken for a ride. In another test presumably intended to drive the birds past the brink of insanity, the researchers mounted a dead but stuffed bird in the jays' foraging grounds, and the birds engaged in a kind of "mobbing" behavior that indicated that they thought it was alive, but sick in some way.
Something like this, we imagine.
So, OK, they're not super-geniuses, but still, it's nice that they care.
#1. Pigeons Understand Statistics Better Than We Do
Pigeons, commonly known as the rats of the sky, are the dumbest, most ubiquitous birds on Earth. Or so we assume. It might surprise you to learn that they would probably beat your ass on a game show.
That's pretty big talk for a species that hasn't invented gunpowder, pigeons.
Specifically, the old show Let's Make a Deal, which is famous among statisticians for spawning a statistical aberration known as the "Monty Hall problem," named after the show's host. In short, Monty Hall presents three doors and tells you that a brand new car is behind one of them, but the other two contain goats or some other hilarious "fuck you" prize. You pick one door, but instead of telling you what's behind it, Hall opens one of the other two doors that contains a goat, and asks you whether you want to change your decision.
Most people stick with their initial instinct, because they still have a 1 in 2 chance of getting the car, right? Wrong! In reality, you still have a 2 in 3 chance of being wrong, which means that switching to the other door will get you the car 66 percent of the time. It seems absurd, and it absolutely is, but if you don't believe it, there are simulations that prove it (note: you cannot actually win a car in the simulation).
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Nor a goat.
What does this have to do with pigeons? Well, as we said, most people faced with this dilemma choose not to change their original decision, because we just can't get our heads around it. Not so for pigeons. A study published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology showed that pigeons discover the secret to the Monty Hall problem more quickly than humans do, even when a considerable number of professional human mathematicians still refuse to believe.
They replicated the problem with colored keys that lit up when pecked, because getting them to understand doors and television sets would be stretching it a little. Upon choosing a key, one of the other keys would deactivate, signaling a wrong answer. The birds that chose the right one out of those two were rewarded with food, and the wrong one led to nothing but a few free non-eating moments to think about how not to get caught by scientists the next time.
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Possibly accompanied by a few disappointed head shakes from the pigeon's father.
At first, a lot of them chose the wrong one like us and didn't switch, or maybe they didn't want to attract too much attention by solving it in the first go. But after some time, all of the test birds started switching, every single time. They learned that the third door has the highest chance of having the prize, so technically goddamn pigeons deserve those trips to Spain and refrigerators more than we do.
Related Reading: You know what else animals have in common with people? Getting fucked up. Also? Birds password-protect their nests. And parrots name their babies! Which probably means we should stop having Parrot Meat Taco Tuesdays at Cracked.