Sparrows can learn complicated songs by hearing just a few notes. The swift uses the same aeronautical principles as fighter jets and insects do. And, although their brains have...

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Sparrows can learn complicated songs by hearing just a few notes.

The swift uses the same aeronautical principles as fighter jets and insects do.

And, although their brains have evolved in different directions, crows and ravens display as much intelligence as chimpanzees and other apes.

That news from the avian world appeared in three scientific reports last week, shedding new light on how birds fly and learn to sing and on their level of intelligence.

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Scientists and engineers have studied birds for a century, finding inspiration in their wings and tapered bodies for the earliest airplanes. But many of the habits and abilities of the world’s 9,000 known species remain a mystery.

“When it comes to birds, we’ve learned a lot, but we still know very little,” said John Videler, a biologist at the University of Groningen in Haren, Netherlands.

Videler created models of swift wings in his lab and tested them in a water tunnel. The results, published Friday in the journal Science, show that by sweeping back its wing tips at an area known as the hand wing, the swift creates “a leading-edge vortex,” or a tornado-shaped current of air that sweeps around the wing and lifts the bird.

Videler said other birds and airplanes may create lift in other ways, but that insects and some fighter jets use similar vortices. The phenomenon had never before been documented among birds in such detail, he said.

How birds learn to sing is another story.

Gary Rose, a biologist at the University of Utah, captured dozens of white-crowned sparrow nestlings in the Utah mountains, and with researcher Stephanie Plamondon, hand-fed them and raised them in soundproof cages to examine how they learned to sing.

When the birds were 2 weeks old, researchers played digital recordings of their species, which include a trilling, a buzzing and a whistling sound, for 90 minutes twice a day for two months. But Rose broke up the recorded songs into five segments and played the segments individually and in pairs to assess the effects on song learning.

When the segments were played individually for one set of sparrows, they failed to learn the songs. But when the segments were played in pairs of two for other sets, the birds pieced together a complete tune.

Rose said when the sparrows heard two sounds together they made sense of what they were hearing and learned the rules for putting songs together, just as children learn a language by hearing consonants and vowels together.

“They hear a lot of stuff out there, and they have to be able to identify components with one another to be able to put it all together,” Rose said.

Another research group concluded last week that when it comes to intelligence, one familiar family of birds is greatly underrated.

Crows, ravens and other corvids, a family that includes jays, are about as smart as chimpanzees and other apes, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge in England.

The scientists, who reviewed dozens of scientific studies, reported in Friday’s Science that corvids show the same abilities as apes to use tools, learn tasks and manage food supplies — despite the lack of a prefrontal cortex, the area of a primate’s brain responsible for problem solving and complex thought.

They note that while the birds have very different brain structures, their brains are the same size in relation to their overall body as chimpanzee brains.