I often smiled to myself while reading King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz. In this delightful book he shares stories of animal intelligence and character that humans often disregard. It reminded me of the botanical garden at UCLA.
The botanical garden at UCLA is not large, but it had tall trees with thick trunks and rugged bark, ferns with luxurious leaves that stretched along the edge of a small stream, and bright hibiscus flowers that beckoned butterflies and hummingbirds. Footpaths wound through the garden to quiet corners and pockets of shade. The garden offered respite from urban university life.
During my last year of college at UCLA, I helped with research projects in a behavioral ecology lab. One project I worked on involved scrub jays. They are related to crows, which means that they are intelligent birds.
Near the entrance to the botanical garden were two small chessboard-sized platforms, each on a post. This is where I did experiments with the scrub jays.
Prior to working with the birds, I prepared peanuts. Some peanuts I did not open; I merely painted them in one of four different colors. Other peanuts I opened, but took only one or two nuts out before gluing the shells back together. For some peanuts I removed all the nuts before gluing the shells back together. I also painted these manipulated peanuts.
Scrub jays can distinguish different colors. A bird will shake a peanut in its beak to discern how much food is inside.
I don’t remember the exact experiments, but this was the general procedure: I would place two peanuts, each a different color, on a platform. Scrub jays, their legs marked with rings, would appear one at a time to select a nut. Part of the task was to see if scrub jays could learn what specific colors meant (e.g., “red peanuts never have nuts in them; green peanuts are always full of nuts”). Another part of the task was to see how quickly scrub jays learned to adapt to changing circumstances (e.g., “something is different—now the green peanuts are empty and the red peanuts have some nuts in them”). I spent about 15 to 20 minutes several times a week putting pairs of peanuts on the platforms. The scrub jays would land on the edge of the platform, look at the peanuts, pick up and test the peanuts, and then fly away to a nearby tree with a peanut. I scribbled down my observations and readings from my stopwatch.
I did this for several weeks, maybe a month. It was fun. (Scrub jays usually learned within two to three trials what different colors meant and could retain this information over time.)
Once my time at the lab was over, I still took walks in the garden. Scrub jays saw me enter the garden and followed me, often for over ten minutes. They flew from branch to branch, sometimes trailing behind me, sometimes flying ahead of me on the path.
This occurred for months after I had stopped leaving peanuts for them.
I took walks in the garden before I joined the behavioral ecology lab. Scrub jays never followed me around then. I can only assume that the scrub jays learned to recognize me and hoped that I would leave peanuts for them.
My experiences with the scrub jays pales in comparison to Lorenz’s work, but it felt both magical and eerie to see scrub jays following me around—always in silence and never too close—as I took walks in the garden. I can only wish that everyone will have such an experience at least once in their lives.