Bird Brained?
Lesson Overview

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TIME ALLOTMENT: Three 45-minute class periods

OVERVIEW: The traditional view of animal behavior is that it is driven by inherited, innate instincts, but recent scientific research is revealing a larger role for complex cognitive processes among many species. The lesson will explore some of the more commonly accepted indicators of animal intelligence as demonstrated by the most brainy of all birds-the raven.

Students will first explore a series of science Web sites to compile a list of certain animal behaviors and abilities that indicate higher intelligence. They will then find and analyze examples of these behaviors and abilities as demonstrated by ravens in selected clips from the NATURE episode “Ravens.” Based on what they learn, students will then work in groups to create a theoretical intelligence-challenging “obstacle course” for ravens.

This lesson could be used following (or in conjunction with) the lesson “Symbiotic Strategies.

SUBJECT MATTER: Living Environment/Biology


Students will be able to:

  • Compare “classical” and “modern” views of bird brain anatomy and function, and compare bird brains to human brains;
  • Describe various raven behaviors and abilities that indicate intelligence;
  • Explain why many of these behaviors indicate cognitive intelligence rather than simple inherited instinct;
  • Assemble a realistic sequence of intelligence-testing challenges for ravens.


National Science Education Standards

CONTENT STANDARD C: As a result of their activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of:


  • Organisms both cooperate and compete in ecosystems. The interrelationships and interdependencies of these organisms may generate ecosystems that are stable for hundreds or thousands of years.
  • Living organisms have the capacity to produce populations of infinite size, but environments and resources are finite. This fundamental tension has profound effects on the interactions between organisms.


  • Organisms have behavioral responses to internal changes and to external stimuli. Responses to external stimuli can result from interactions with the organism’s own species and others, as well as environmental changes; these responses either can be innate or learned. The broad patterns of behavior exhibited by animals have evolved to ensure reproductive success. Animals often live in unpredictable environments, and so their behavior must be flexible enough to deal with uncertainty and change. Plants also respond to stimuli.
  • Like other aspects of an organism’s biology, behaviors have evolved through natural selection. Behaviors often have an adaptive logic when viewed in terms of evolutionary principles.
  • Behavioral biology has implications for humans, as it provides links to psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

CONTENT STANDARD G: As a result of activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of


  • Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria. First and foremost, they must be consistent with experimental and observational evidence about nature, and must make accurate predictions, when appropriate, about systems being studied. They should also be logical, respect the rules of evidence, be open to criticism, report methods and procedures, and make knowledge public. Explanations on how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.
  • Because all scientific ideas depend on experimental and observational confirmation, all scientific knowledge is, in principle, subject to change as new evidence becomes available. The core ideas of science such as the conservation of energy or the laws of motion have been subjected to a wide variety of confirmations and are therefore unlikely to change in the areas in which they have been tested. In areas where data or understanding are incomplete, such as the details of human evolution or questions surrounding global warming, new data may well lead to changes in current ideas or resolve current conflicts. In situations where information is still fragmentary, it is normal for scientific ideas to be incomplete, but this is also where the opportunity for making advances may be greatest.


Living Environment Core Curriculum

Standard 1: Students will use mathematical analysis, scientific inquiry, and engineering design, as appropriate, to pose questions, seek answers, and develop solutions.

Key Idea 1: The central purpose of scientific inquiry is to develop explanations of natural phenomena in a continuing and creative process.

Performance Indicator 1.1: Hone ideas through reasoning, library research, and discussion with others, including experts.

1.2a Inquiry involves asking questions and locating, interpreting, and processing information from a variety of sources.

Standard 4: Students will understand and apply scientific concepts, principles, and theories pertaining to the physical setting and living environment and recognize the historical development of ideas in science.

Key Idea 1: Living things are both similar to and different from each other and from nonliving things.

Performance Indicator 1.1 Explain how diversity of populations within ecosystems relates to the stability of ecosystems.

1.1a Populations can be categorized by the function they serve. Food webs identify the relationships among producers, consumers, and decomposers carrying out either autotropic or heterotropic nutrition.

1.1b An ecosystem is shaped by the nonliving environment as well as its interacting species. The world contains a wide diversity of physical conditions, which creates a variety of environments.

1.1c In all environments, organisms compete for vital resources. The linked and changing interactions of populations and the environment compose the total ecosystem.

Key Idea 6: Plants and animals depend on each other and their physical environment.

Performance Indicator 6.1 Explain factors that limit growth of individuals and populations.

6.1g Relationships between organisms may be negative, neutral, or positive. Some organisms may interact with one another in several ways. They may be in a producer/consumer, predator/prey, or parasite/host relationship; or one organism may cause disease in, scavenge, or decompose another.



NATURE: Ravens, selected segments:

Clip 1: “Raven Adaptability”

Ravens are the most intelligent birds in the crow family.

Clip 2: “Feeding Time”

Ravens’ smarts can be observed in many situations.

Clip 3: “The Roost”

Why do ravens gather together?

Clip 4: “Testing Intelligence”

Scientific experiments test how ravens think.

Access the streaming and downloadable video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.

Web Sites

Bird Brain
A site from PBS’s NOVA exploring the most current understanding of bird brain physiology, revealing a less instinctive and more cognitive brain structure than has traditionally been thought.

Measuring Intelligence
A site from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park addressing some of the basic difficulties in determining bird intelligence.

The Animal Mind
A NATURE site from PBS describing the intelligent behavior of four different species.

A site from North Carolina State University featuring descriptions of the different types of symbiotic relationships among animals.

A PBS site exploring intelligent behavior in various bird species.


For each student:

  • “Raven Reason” Student Organizer. (PDF) (RTF)
  • Computer with Internet access

For the class:

  • “Raven Reason” Student Organizer Answer Key (PDF) (RTF)
  • Computer with Internet access and projection system for showing video clips
  • Blackboard or whiteboard


Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video clips and Web sites used in the lesson.

Download the video clips used in the lesson to your classroom computer, or prepare to watch them using your classroom’s Internet connection.

Bookmark the Web sites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tools such as or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location.

Gather the necessary materials listed above in advance of teaching the lesson. Download and print the “Raven Reason” student organizer and make copies for each student in your classroom.

Note that the computer requirements in the “Materials” section reflect an ideal arrangement. You may find it necessary to divide the class into a number of groups equal to the computers available, adjusting the lesson instructions accordingly.

Next: Proceed to Activities

  • kelsea garber

    need more pics so we can see the bird in its nature and how the apperance can change when it grows!!!!!!!

  • Ryan

    What about the intelligence of domesticated animals that show a high intelligence. For example Victor the budgie had a vocabulary of way over 1000 words and understood their meanings. He could converse on many humanistic concepts such as marriage, war, finances, religion and even politics. You can see some of his videos on youtube at this link.

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