August 21, 2015 Are Gulls Smarter than Hawks?


A friend who knows more about human thinking than anyone else I know (and who pursues that form of enlightenment with a remarkable brain) has been writing me from Monhegan Island in Maine where she’s vacationing. She has been following my attempts to relaunch a young Red-tailed Hawk – he went out of the nest before he could fly and then was starving. He needs to fly strongly and hunt well to live successfully on his own.

My friend’s questions and observations are always probing: “This gull came up,” she wrote yesterday, “while we were sitting on a cliff that’s a popular place for day-trippers to eat lunch. Every gull on Monhegan knows that the 2-legged things drop food around & will even feed you if you do the begging behavior that worked on your parents. We had no food but he kept coming back to check. So where does that put him in the hierarchy of bird intelligence?


Begging Gull on Monhegan Island – Stephanie Golden

What a question! Well, here goes. I think we get stuck in concepts that exist only in our minds and forget to do the deep observations. We judge other animals by ourselves, which means we often don’t understand the outside world very well. Every year, researchers learn more and more about the subtleties of the avian brain, for example. We used to sneer: “Bird brain!” at school companions we wanted to insult most deeply. Today we recognize that birds use different parts of their brains to perform some of the same tasks – problem solving – we use our gray wrinkles for. Some parrots, in some tests, have outperformed not just dogs and monkeys, but young humans. 

We’ve long made a habit of misinterpreting the wild things we see, but since we are everywhere and powerful, they’ve had to learn to observe us with accuracy. At least where we interact. Your gull can predict your vacation behavior very nicely! My dog, who knows things that baffle me, predicts some of my daily movements. How did she figure out I was leaving the house? Oh. I put on my tennis shoes and not my moccasins. The hawk I’m working with learned in one day that my shed-door squeak means food will drop into his mews.

We humans, a single species, have many paths we can follow, many different possibilities. Birds have much the same, but not in any single species or group, except perhaps the corvids (crows, jays, etc.), who, like us, have shaken free of some of the shackles of inherited responses and depend to a fair degree on learning. 

How did we get our flexible primate brains? Eons ago, by being in life situations where we had to get more adaptable, had to learn on the run more and more things, or our species would not have survived in a volatile world. We still have our built-in imperatives, of course. A human child who is not spoken to, or who has not interacted with other humans, by the age of three or four, I’m told, will be unable to learn any language fully. They have missed a developmental window.

Birds have smaller lives, in terms of years, and changes happen more quickly to them as species than to us, I think. And more economically. Humans are built for experimentation; animals can’t afford the time nor the space in their skulls for all that brainwork. Among the animals, those – including early humans – who live by killing creatures who know they are hunted seem to have developed more flexible (i.e., more experimental) brains and senses than the gatherers. This brain activity is expensive in terms of time, space, and energy, so most species develop what they need. They don’t go in for fancy useless stuff very often (though you might argue that the Bird of Paradise has. And humans have jumped the rails in a big way, with our production of food and medicines. We now have complex social mechanisms for helping our fellows who could not otherwise survive in our fast-changing society. I’m one such!)

In that evolutionary dance that made us and still rules under the cover of darkness, there are more prey animals than predators in every corner of Earth. Most are quite aware that they must work not to get killed, and use speed, camouflage, and various dodges to avoid death; but they have enemies so different and so skilled that they have had to develop an even more effective strategy – having many many young – in order for the species to go on. Humans’ number one enemy is the microbe, in all its varieties, wildly out-reproducing even us!

Populations are normally controlled by predation and competition with other species. But when things get abnormal, that rule melts away. In the late 1850s, a few rabbits were released in Australia by homesick Englishmen who wanted to hunt them. Rabbits there have only two predators, really, the dingo and the human, and little competition. In 10 years, they were so numerous that millions could be shot every year without putting a dent in the “infestation.” They still overrun parts of the continent; they have altered habitats and even microclimates! An introduced disease is the only thing that’s slowed them. (Microbes win again.)

Thanks to garbage, gulls are also proliferating, so if intelligence is reflected in numbers, gulls and rabbits must be in the top percentiles. Gulls are scavengers, big enough that they have few natural enemies aside from other gulls and maybe predatory fish. Humans don’t even kill them, as a general rule. In addition to scavenging, of course, gulls also prey on relatively “easy” kills. Wounded critters or babies or small fish. You don’t see them chasing a shorebird into the weeds and flushing it out nor do they dive down and chase fish under water with fancy swimming maneuvers. Gulls find shelled creatures in the shallows and drop them on rocks near the shore to expose the flesh. Corvids do much the same with walnuts and city traffic. That’s smart, all right! Some raptors do that as well – dropping bones and turtles on rocks and highways; many cache food while they’re feeding their babies. Researchers report finding 52 squirrel carcasses in one eagle nest.

louie on his bunny 2

Our young hawk getting the idea. Look at his tail: the top third is abnormally pale. That probably comes from his period of starvation and dehydration as he was developing. Wonder what his adult rusty tail feathers will look like!

Avian predators who regularly kill learn some serious moves, fitting them to their wing or body shape and size. Then Nature takes hold and exquisitely refines through breeding success, and with luck doesn’t trap the specialist in too small a niche. Some hawks learn to keep below and behind prey birds so they can fly them down before the victims see them. Others keep their bodies between their victims and the sun so they will be harder to see. Peregrines have the hardest, smoothest feathers of all, because they need them in high-speed dives. Red-tails, those large “slow” pounce hunters, have moved into cities and learned to fly down the wily and speedy pigeon. 

Research indicates that crows can teach their young about dangers the youngsters have not yet encountered. And tigers in Siberia have been known to get enraged at a single hunter and spend years learning his habits and tracking him down. I like to think both these can be defined as “intelligent” in several ways – long-term purpose; remembered observations; teaching concepts; planning future actions. Crows are probably on the way up in numbers, but tigers, alas, are on the way out. They are too big and dangerous to live close to people and they eat too many of the same things. They don’t have time to make the complex changes survival in the human’s world requires (turning into house-cat sized hunters, for instance!) We humans are fast creating a mass-extinction event.

Which then is most intelligent? Well, each non-human predator – gull, tiger, hawk – has the kind of intelligence it needs to survive in the habitat it is adapting to, with the survival tools it was born with (which in time its descendants might refine, but probably not exchange for totally different ones). Among birds, the hawk needs different skills from say a heron or a robin, and it has to learn what seems to me to be more complex interactions and comprehensions. Different raptors use different kinds of habitat, different skills, different body shapes. They have to be a bit adaptable, too, or like the Spotted Owl, they will be wiped out when their world changes. That bird is not keeping up with what we are doing in the forests. Its close cousin, the Barred Owl, on the other hand, has learned to nest anywhere and eat a broad menu. It is thriving.


Young Red-tail gets a taste of freedom. He won’t go far, though. Not yet. If you look closely, you can spot the transmitter attached to the top of a tail feather. When he’s bored with our games, we’ll “wild hack” him – turn him loose in good hunting territory that’s relatively safe for him, and monitor his progress as he figures things out. It could take awhile. And despite our care and feeding and encouragement, he might not make it. Working with wild animals can be hard on the heart. 

I don’t see this kind of refined behavior in gulls. But I haven’t studied gulls, and surely they have many subtleties I am unaware of. They do learn to watch humans and change their habits accordingly. My friend’s gull has learned, maybe he was taught it as a gull-let by his parents, that it pays to keep checking humans for dropped or offered food. Around here (Central California), gulls flock to landfills by the hundreds of thousands, where they “spoil” the salable detritus with tons of acid droppings. Some falconers make a living by getting their raptors to chase them away. One guy I know works at a landfill in the Central Valley. The gulls quickly learned to recognize his truck, and they leave as soon as they see it. He doesn’t even have to fly his falcons at them any more.

Our brains are interesting, and entertaining when they are not being troublesome. But we have used them to destroy, as I believe forever, the planet that has made and shaped us. Not all the elephants who ever lived could destroy enough territory to do that. So if numbers reflect intelligence, humans, rats, gulls, and microbes win. But surely intelligence ought to have something to do with the long term – a species’ overall effect on its environment.

Therefore, in the hierarchy of effective intelligence, my vote goes not to a predator at all, but to the tree. It provides the planet with oxygen, it absorbs carbon dioxide, it creates its own food, it holds water and moves it from earth to air to produce our climate, it feeds its neighbors, it provides housing for millions, and doesn’t seem to kill its neighbors except by falling on them or passively stealing their light. With the tree as king, Earth could probably go on self-creating forever. Unless, of course, a good sized meteor came along and smashed it to smithereens. There are no guarantees!

Afterthoughts: First: as I was thinking these things over, I took my little orphan hawk hunting. A falconer friend stirred up a quail, which the naive little killer riding on my glove just didn’t see. The quail flurried up, dropped, vanished. For a long time, we tried to find it among the weeds. But the lowly prey critter had seen the hawk and remained hunkered down, not moving even as our big feet brushed by. It’s this kind of smarts that keeps the world turning. Tightening the relationships, refining the interactions.

louie free on bales

The little hawk a week after his “wild hack”: we released him on some hay bales in a large field, and followed him with the transmitter/receiver for two days. Then he went out of range. Four days later, hungry, he showed up on these bales, made a few nice attack flights as the falconer kicked up prey in the bushes, but caught nothing. And then happily ate an offered meal. Photo: Mark Moore 

Second: After I’d posted the version above, my friend wrote: “. . .the last part about the tree’s ‘intelligence’ might be pushing it a bit.” Well, yes, it might! I’d thrown that thought out to get ideas going (this is what makes our brains fun to play with). So: Does the tree think? Well, does a being have to have a recognizable brain in order to have a creative response to life? Can you do it with a notochord? Or a collection of receptor cells generating a chemical response to certain stimuli? After all, plants are popularly reported to respond to us, and octopi react to humans in ways that certainly look like “thought.”

I hope we last long enough to find, not answers necessarily, but at least more precise questions. The dance of discovery never ends! And there will never be any guarantees. . .

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