Trial and Error Behaviors in Birds

Crows regularly use tools to forage and feed.
Crows regularly use tools to forage and feed. (Image: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Trial and error behavior and the ability to recognize a mistake are typically associated with highly evolved mammals, but some birds exhibit this behavior too. Crows, a variety of songbirds and some finch species have been observed performing trial and error behaviors to achieve a more preferable action, in some cases even using tools to achieve an outcome.

Tools for the Job

Crows, eagles, parrots and finches are well-known for their high intelligence. One common trait these birds share that signifies their high intelligence is their use of tools, but it isn’t always plain sailing. Crows and finches use leaves for foraging and twigs for prizing out insects from their burrows. The use of tools requires a high degree of trial and error. Stiffer twigs and bigger leaves may be needed, for example. When eagles in the Dardia Mountains of Greece catch a turtle, they drop him onto rocks from a great height to smash the shell, making it easier for them to get to the flesh.

Social Learning

As well as modifying their own behavior to achieve a desired outcome, birds will observe other birds performing a behavior and will attempt to emulate it. The New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides) is considered to be the most sophisticated tool maker in nature, after humans. These birds use trial and error to refine their tool use, regularly swapping twigs for new sizes or snapping twigs to modify them, but it is only through observing other birds of the same species that the young learn about tool use.

Taster Menu

Feeding is an innate behavior and all chicks have the reflex for opening their mouths for feeding. But knowing which food to eat and which to avoid is only learned through trial and error. Safe foods taste nice, potentially poisonous foods taste foul. Birds may have to taste some foul foods before they settle on a selection of food that is nutritious, safe and palatable.

Finding Romance

Scientists at the University of California at San Francisco studied the Bengalese finch (Lonchura striata domestica), also known as the society finch, to learn about his mating behavior. They found that the bird would try a call to attract a mate and if no bird responded, he’d adjust his call little by little until he had success.

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