Nest Building in Birds: A Case of Collaborative Intelligence?
TWCF Number
Project Duration
September 1 / 2017
- August 31 / 2019
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Big Questions
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Susan Denise Healy
Institution University of St Andrews

Tool use is often deemed emblematic of intelligence. It requires planning, comprehension of the physical world, and, sometimes, the ability to copy from others. It may even have prepared the human brain for language. But it is rare. The making of other structures (e.g., bird nests) is, however, quite common, and nest building appears to share features of tool use, including choice of appropriate materials and the manipulation of those materials into a suitable structure. Importantly, recent work has shown that nest building by birds is not all instinctive; rather, nest builders have the same or similar intellectual capabilities as those required for tool use. In some species, however, building may demand more than the physical cognition of tool use, as some birds build their nests together. This raises the possibilities that birds collaborate in nest building, and that parents have the opportunity to teach their offspring to build.

This project will collect video data of sparrow weavers building to determine whether birds that build nests together do so through observing others and by working flexibly in response to their building partners. If they do, then nests may be subject to cultural evolution, and similarity of structure—once thought to be the result of instinct—may be due to conformity. If building nests requires more than the intelligence that underpins tool use (“collaborative intelligence”), then the diversity of building across the animal kingdom would provide a new opportunity to investigate the evolution of intelligence.

We will disseminate our results widely to both academic audiences and, through a range of media, to the public. These data may completely change the way we think about the kind of intelligence that is required to produce a familiar structure (a nest) and, therefore, the intelligence of many of the animals around us.

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