“Pests,” Pets and a Study in Smarts

Through their work as four-legged police officers, aids to the blind, and providers of all manner of services to others in need, the intelligence of dogs is indisputable.  And, of course, all who’ve been withered by a cat’s knowing look of superiority – or those witnessing the feats of The Savitsky Cats (who perform tricks previously thought to be the sole domain of dogs) — will likewise attest to the feline realm’s possession of notable “smarts.”  In light of this, it might come as a surprise that neither of these species is on HowStuffWorks.com’s list of the “Top 10 Smartest Animals.”  What might come as a bigger surprise, however, is that nearly half of those who did make the list are often considered “pests” – and that two of these are rodents, with one being the rat.

If you’ve read my articles in the CSA Journals of the past two years, you’re already aware that schooling in rodents’ cerebral capabilities began for me and my husband upon meeting our beloved pet rat Molly under our local post office’s drive-up mailbox.   Getting to know her, and the many additional rescued rats who’ve followed in her footsteps, has shown us firsthand how resourceful (as well as emotionally intelligent) behavioral experiments have repeatedly evidenced rats to be.  As shown in video clips available on YouTube, such as “15 Incredible Rat Tricks” by Abby Roeser, their intelligence is further evidenced in how easily they also can be trained to perform many and varied tasks… including those required to star on the Broadway stage.  As an aid to stimulating their mental faculties during playtime with their humans, Deb Ducommun (aka “The Rat Lady”) developed an interactive toy set called “Brainy Boxes,” which rats easily learn to open in order to reach treats hidden inside.  And, for the past twenty years and counting, African giant pouched rats (larger cousins of the common Norway rat, which comprises most of the wild and pet rat populations in America), have become invaluable to countries across the globe (earning them the nickname “HeroRATs”) through their training to detect landmines and tuberculosis.

An interesting side note to rat intelligence is the long held supposition that mice do not share rats’ mental gifts (a supposition, having known wild-born mouse Audie [introduced in my aforementioned 2017 CSA Journal article], I could have told them was grossly inaccurate). But, a study conducted in 2014 led researchers to conclude it might be behavioral differences between rats and mice that were responsible for this opinion.  These researchers began exploring the use of different techniques for training mice than those used for rats, as well as for testing mouse intelligence.  Once suitable adjustments were made, they were able to train mice over the course of merely “a few days,” with “over 90 percent successfully completing the training — a figure on par with rats.”

Having received a secondary education by way of an orphaned groundhog and red squirrel, respectively (as well as having raised and released several grey squirrels over the years), I would assert that a similar matter of behavioral differences may very well account for the fact squirrel intelligence has been widely documented, while groundhogs (though these are, taxonomically speaking, the largest squirrel) are often perceived as mere slow-witted animal backhoes.  Of course, squirrels, who are often perceived as “pests” for stealing food from bird feeders and making nests in attics, have also been far more widely studied than their burrowing cousins, whose largely underground activities make a significant portion of their lives much less easy to routinely observe.

In addition to being able to recall where they’ve buried thousands of nuts, squirrels are known for preemptive thinking, such as engaging in elaborate displays of decoy food burying to divert birds and other animals from the locations their food is really being stored (i.e. pretending to bury nuts actually being held under their armpits or in their mouths).  They’ve also proved adept at solving complicated puzzles, and remembering how to do so when faced with them again years later, as well as adapting these techniques to new problems. It’s further been theorized that grey squirrels are smarter than their smaller red cousins, though acquaintance with both in recent years leads me to speculate whether this might be yet another area where behavioral differences have led researchers to misinterpret findings, as it’s been my observation that grey squirrels are more aggressive and persistent than reds, whose measurably calmer and more contented temperaments might lead to a mistaken impression of a slower mental state than they actually possess.

As previously touched on, over a decade of close acquaintance with several adopted groundhog (aka woodchuck) family members has convinced me that the relatively little-observed life of the species as a whole has surely led to misunderstandings by both animal “experts” and the public at large – and a significant part of this misunderstanding indeed relates to groundhog thought patterns and intelligence.  A misunderstanding of groundhog preferences and personalities may also play a role, especially since these often dictate the actions a groundhog may use his or her intelligence to try to achieve.  For example, in 2012, news outlets ran a story about flags that kept mysteriously disappearing from a Hudson, NY cemetery.  Though it was originally assumed a human must be to blame, hidden cameras proved the culprit was, in fact, a groundhog, which led to various theories behind his motivation – ranging from an attraction to the wooden poles that held the flags to a coating on the flags themselves.  Had these theorists known that groundhogs love few things more than a snuggly blanket to curl up in, they might have realized the cloth the flags were made from was most likely the groundhog’s exciting find, one he couldn’t resist bringing back to the bed chamber of his burrow (and, perhaps, storing in his linen closet 🙂 ).

Though it’s unclear whether many humans have noticed (since I doubt it’s ever made the news), groundhogs also routinely steal plastic bags to line the bottom of their burrows as a means of waterproofing them – something our first groundhog taught us when constructing his earliest burrow at only a few weeks’ age.  (He also stole clean laundry, as well as discarded mail and other papers, including one piece of which that quite literally became his “sheet.”)

Most evidential of groundhog intellect, however, is their engineering skill.  Said to range from 15-25 feet in length, observation has shown that many burrows extend even well beyond this, and a basic version can reportedly be designed and constructed in a single day.  In addition to a main entrance, burrows feature several chambers including the aforementioned bedroom, a bathroom, a nursery and a series of tunnels connecting the various rooms, plus leading to one or more alternate exits.  The fact many of these are constructed under storage sheds or other buildings has long prompted humans to attempt hasty removal of groundhogs, fearing imminent structural collapse if they’re allowed to remain. Long term observation of several properties we’ve regularly visited for more than two decades, however (where groundhogs have constantly lived undisturbed), has taught us that this is an area where these thoughtful planners’ animal intelligence clearly surpasses that of the panicked humans. For, while the burrows have grown and extended (as evidenced by the addition of new entrances and exits), there have been no building collapses or cave-ins of the earth above them – including one in the yard of a commercial property that’s been traveled over with a thousand-plus pound mower every week throughout this duration.

As we began learning about rat and groundhog intelligence by way of adopting individuals of these species, yet another course in higher (i.e. avian) learning came through experiences  with European Starlings, who literally speak for themselves as to how truly enviable is the “bird brain.”  Like groundhogs, Starlings are not specifically included on the smartest animals’ list.  But, getting to know them and various other bird species makes clear why another two slots should be filled with such high flyers: crows and pigeons, who are also considered pests by many farmers and urbanites, respectively.   According to ReadersDigest.com, “Not only can crows recognize faces to differentiate between predatory and benign species, they also understand basic physics (like a lab crow who mastered water displacement to maneuver a treat within reach).” In addition, they’re able to use tools – and to construct them when those they have on hand won’t do the job.  Pigeons possess a similarly staggering intellect, evidenced by their ability to recognize all 26 letters of the English alphabet, differentiate between different humans in photographs, and to recall hundreds of images, even years after first seeing them.

While further examples of animal intelligence – including that of misunderstood and underappreciated species – could fill many books, with space on these pages running short, it’s hoped the above overview might (very lightly) scratch the surface.  In saying this, however, I hasten to add that intellect, of course, is only one area in which animals inspire humans’ awe.  Arguably even more significant are their patience, their loyalty and kindness… their generous spirits – and the enormous love-filled hearts that inspire them to become our family and friends.