Not only are birds smart, but they may actually be creative.
In some senses, it's hard to ignore the intelligence of birds. They perform tricks, unlatch cages, and some can even talk. Until recently, however, this intelligence was thought to end at mere mimicking. But new research shows that birds may actually be creative.
Songbirds have a brain area called the high vocal center that is almost entirely dedicated to singing.
"That's not true of brain parts, generally," Elizabeth Regan, professor of psychology and neurobiology at Cornell University said in an interview with PBS. "They usually do a bazillion different things."
Because of this, researchers are studying why birds sing. Along the way they are trying to discover whether or not there is an element of creativity in their songs.
Many birds do seem to follow a simple script when they sing, but some birds, like canaries, have complex songs with extremely flexible phrases, which shows a special nuanced kind of memory.
Jeff Markowitz, a graduate student in computational neuroscience at Boston University decided to test the Belgian waterslager canary's "memory" through song analysis. His team studied 34,000 phrases and over one hundred songs to see how likely birds were to tweet each sequence.
They discovered that what a canary had sung for the previous ten seconds actually seemed to influence what it was singing at the present moment. In other words, while the high-probability sequences Markowitz teased out could be normal, everyday singing, the low-probability ones -- the rare ones that don't get sung often -- could be evidence of real creativity.
"We don't know if the canary is making a decision and then, in some sense, remembering that decision and having it impact their song 10 seconds later," Markowitz said.
But it could be.