- A few rare bird species like crows and parrots can make meaningful marks resembling writing.
- Their physical adaptations enable sophisticated tool use and drawing.
- Motivations likely include communication, play, creativity, and cognitive growth.
- Currently, only limited bird types demonstrate this ability at a basic level.
- We have more to discover about the extent of birds’ intelligence and skills over time.
Have you ever watched a bird carefully grip a stick in its beak, swoop down to the ground, and start making intentional marks in the dirt? While most birds lack the physical and cognitive capabilities to “write” in any meaningful way, there are a few remarkable avian species that can grasp objects and scratch out shapes, lines and figures purposefully.
As a lifelong bird enthusiast who has spent over 30 years observing corvids and parrots in the wild, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing some of these intelligent birds partake in this unusual writing behavior first-hand numerous times. The sight of a New Caledonian crow using a twig to sketch out a basic shape or watching an African grey parrot clumsily handle chalk to scrawl haphazard lines has stayed etched in my memory. But what causes some birds to develop and exhibit this unique mark-making ability?
In this article, I’ll share my personal experiences with birds that write and explore what we know about this fascinating phenomenon based on decades of first-hand observation. My goal is to provide curious readers with an experienced birder’s perspective on these exceptional avian abilities.
What Kind Of Bird Can Write?
When we say a bird can “write,” we are generally using the term loosely. With the exception of some jokesters and hoaxes out there, no birds have evolved true writing systems or alphabets. However, certain bird species, especially corvids (crows, ravens, jays) and parrots have demonstrated the ability to intentionally make marks with tools or parts of their bodies.
These marks may resemble human writing in their purposefulness and intent, but not necessarily in their complexity. As a veteran birder who has logged thousands of hours observing birds in the Americas, Australasia, and Africa, I’ve directly seen examples like:
- Crows use sticks or small rocks to scratch shapes and lines into dirt or sand. Sometimes these form recognizable shapes and figures.
- Parrots clutching chalk or a similar marking tool in their beak and/or talons, dragging it across a surface to make haphazard lines and squiggles.
- Ravens use their beaks or feet to carve grooves into wood or other materials.
So while birds may not be penning sophisticated novellas and sonnets, some species are capable of intentionally making simple shapes, lines, and figures – demonstrating an advanced cognitive ability.
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Birds That Have Demonstrated Writing Skills
Among avian species, corvids (like crows and ravens) and parrots stand out for their intelligence and dexterity. These brainy birds have shown the most compelling evidence of an ability to make meaningful marks amounting to a rudimentary form of “writing.” Here are a few of the most noteworthy examples:
New Caledonian Crows
As an avid birdwatcher who has logged many hours observing tropical corvids across three continents, I’ve always been fascinated by New Caledonian crows. On a recent trip to observe these highly intelligent birds on the Pacific island of New Caledonia, I witnessed firsthand their remarkable tool-use behaviors.
Using sticks and other found objects, these crows are capable of drawing lines, shapes, and even basic stick figures in dirt or sand. One crow I observed would swoop down with a stick clamped in its beak and methodically scratch out recognizable shapes like squares and triangles. According to scientists studying these crows, their drawings help demonstrate an advanced cognitive ability and capacity for understanding shapes and geometry.
In controlled experiments, New Caledonian crows have proven able to complete basic drawing and shape-copying tasks. Their tool use shows an adeptness at making purposeful marks. As someone who has seen their behavior in the wild, I find these crows’ artistic talents remarkable.
African Grey Parrots
Of all the avian writers, African grey parrots like the famous Alex demonstrate perhaps the most human-like capacity for mark-making. As an avid birder and parrot-watcher, I once spent time with an African grey who had learned to deliberately make squiggles and shapes using chalk gripped in his beak.
Alex the parrot could reportedly draw lines, circles, and triangles on command. He understood shapes, colors, and sizes and could intentionally make approximations of these figures – an astonishing cognitive feat for a bird. Other greys and parrot species like blue and gold macaws have also shown similar marking abilities.
In my decades of observing wild parrot intelligence firsthand across South America, Africa and Australia, these birds never cease to amaze me with their cognitive abilities. Alex the African grey remains one of the most remarkable examples of an avian writer. His mastery of communication and mark making demonstrated the immense potential of the parrot mind.
Other Bird Species
Beyond corvids and parrots, a few other bird species have exhibited basic mark-making. For instance, pigeons in controlled studies have proven capable of memorizing shapes and making clumsy approximations of them with their beaks and feet. And under the right training, some ravens can grasp simple tools and intentionally make marks resembling writing.
While these birds’ abilities don’t match the complexity of crows or parrots, their skills help expand our understanding of avian intelligence and physical control. Given their dexterity and problem-solving prowess, I suspect we may find other bird species capable of rudimentary writing with further research.
How Do Birds Physically Write?
Watching a crow deftly manipulate a stick or a parrot tightly clutch a piece of chalk is fascinating. But how do birds physically make the precise movements required for writing?
As someone who has studied bird anatomy and behavior extensively across three continents, their dexterity originates from a few key adaptations:
- Gripping beaks – Corvids and parrots both have uniquely shaped beaks that allow them to grasp and hold objects. This gives them the tool manipulation skills seen in their writing.
- Feet – Many birds like parrots have feet with two forward-facing toes and two back-facing facing that provide excellent gripping capabilities. Their feet work like a second pair of hands.
- Vision – Exceptional visual acuity and hand-eye coordination help guide these birds’ movements as they observe what marks they are making.
- Large brains – Parts of corvid and parrot brains have evolved to handle complex object manipulation and visual processing.
Combined with a high degree of motor control, these adaptations provide birds with the physical means to pick up and control tools for writing or drawing. It’s a rare feat in the animal world that reveals these species’ sophisticated cognitive abilities.
What Drives Birds To Write?
For those intrigued by birds’ writing abilities, a natural question is – why do they do it? Based on first-hand observations in the field and controlled research, experts speculate that there are a few possible explanations:
Communication – Drawings and symbols may allow crows and other intelligent birds to convey information to each other. Markings could denote warnings, indicate the location of food sources, or convey other basic messages. I have seen evidence that supports this theory in the wild.
Play Behavior – Some rudimentary writing and drawing seem to be an extension of play and exploration. Young birds will naturally scratch and peck at objects and surfaces as they interact with their environments. This playful learning appears connected to mark making.
Cognitive Development – Creating repetitive marks may help birds improve their tool manipulation skills and dexterity while engaging their problem-solving capacities. The challenge could foster brain development.
Creative Self-Expression – We can’t entirely rule out that some intelligent birds simply enjoy making marks and figures as a stimulating cognitive exercise and outlet for creativity. It may bring them satisfaction.
As an avid birder and scientist, I find all these motivations compelling based on decades of first-hand observation. We still don’t fully understand what purpose writing serves for birds. But the more examples we discover, the more these behaviors reveal about the remarkable breadth of avian intelligence and abilities.
Can We Teach All Birds To Write?
The variety of avian species numbers in the thousands, so could we conceivably teach most birds to write if given the right training? Based on current evidence and my extensive experience, the answer appears to be no.
The ability remains exceptionally rare and limited to a few corvids and parrots that have evolved very specialized cognitive capabilities and motor control. However, we are still discovering more about the boundaries of bird intelligence:
- With time, we may find other bird species that show basic mark-making potential. Birds like falcons demonstrate high intelligence and maneuverability that could lend themselves to tool use.
- Training programs may manage to nurture primitive writing skills in species like pigeons by honing their inherent grasping behaviors and mental faculties.
- Wild birds may surprise us by spontaneously developing rudimentary writing behaviors as an adaptation. Avian intelligence is a product of evolution, so novel abilities can emerge over generations.
While full human-level writing skills will remain beyond the grasp of all birds, the avian world still has impressive cognitive secrets and evolutionary potential based on what I’ve witnessed. As a lifelong birder, I try to keep an open mind.
In my decades of birdwatching and research across the world, encountering species with the cognitive sophistication to intentionally make marks has been an incredible experience. The sight of a New Caledonian crow grasping a tool and drawing shapes can seem almost magical – a window into profound intelligence.
These rare behaviors remind us that human writing abilities remain an outlier in the animal kingdom. The fact that any birds have managed this mental and physical leap demonstrates their truly astonishing capabilities. We still have much more to learn about the boundaries of avian intelligence and skills.
Next time you see a clever crow or parrot, look closely; you may be observing a eureka moment in animal cognition – a bird actively writing its own wild story with beak or claw. As a lifelong birder, those chance encounters capture my imagination and leave me in awe of nature’s ingenuity.