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Look for Intelligent Animals in Your Own Backyard!

Brainy Backyard Animals

Intelligent Animals:  What to Look For

Animal Intelligence is the ability to learn, understand, and deal with new situations within one’s environment.  Just like humans (yes, we are animals), other animals also show signs of intelligence.  Some signs that an animal is smart are its ability to solve problems, communicate with others, developing a way of doing things in a group, learn and remember through experience, and show emotion.

Animals that People Typically Think of as Smart

Some animals are commonly thought of as being intelligent.  Chimpanzees often top the list.  These clever animals communicate with different vocalizations and learn sign language when taught.  This ape can also solve problems and use tools.   Likewise, bottle-nosed dolphins have highly developed brains.  They live and hunt in groups; helping each other out.  These ocean-living creatures also show sympathy for humans.  They have carried injured people to the surface of the water.  Dolphins are quick learners.  They learn what hand gestures and whistles stand for.  Subsequently, they are trained to participate in entertainment shows.

Brainy Backyard Animals

Just like there are intelligent animals in nature, in zoos, and aquariums, there are brainy animals right in your backyard and neighborhood.  Recently, we have spent a lot of time observing animals in our yard.

Just the other night, we observed a bluejay on our platform feeder.  It picked up a sunflower seed and knocked it several times against the outside edge of the platform.  Subsequently, the black and white striped shell fell off.  The bird used his feet to hold onto it, and then popped the inner seed into its mouth.  It did this repeatedly.  Surely this is a sign of intelligence.

crow on a platform feeder.

We have squirrels that perform for us while we eat out on our deck!  They too, like the platform feeder.  When we first put it up we watched several of them try to get up the pole.  They slid right down.  These clever animals didn’t give up.  It only took a few attempts for them to learn to grab the edge of the wood with their claws and hoist themselves over.  Now, they all zip right up!  Squirrels don’t like sharing the platform with others.  If they sense another squirrel climbing up or a bird coming too close, they chatter at them in a loud voice definitely communicating, “Get Away!”  We’ve also observed them taking the seeds and stashing them for winter.  This video shows a squirrel completing an obstacle course to get to its food!

Often, we put bread scraps out for the crows.  Once one crow sees it, it will call to tell others.  The next thing you know, there is a crow party!  Crows are great communicators.  Different “caws”  mean different things.  These birds will often “caw” in a pattern and wait for a response from another crow.

Check out this crow video of a crow using a lid to go siding down a rooftop over and over again!

How about this one about a border collie that loves to go sledding!

There are so many intelligent animals out there!  Search intelligent animals on YouTube to see some amazing footage!

Challenging Students to Find Intelligent Animals in Their Own Backyard

Students find this to be a fascinating topic, therefore, they readily take on the challenge.  I usually just start by asking students to brainstorm what makes someone smart or intelligent.  We share the ideas.  Then, I share a story or a short video in which an animal has used intelligence.  I describe the animal’s actions and then ask students if the animals showed intelligence or not.  Next, I ask them to tell me what actions make the animal intelligent.  Using a video such as the one above makes a good starting point.  Pause the video at intervals to discuss what they think the squirrel is doing.

I have created reading passages about intelligent animals as well.  I ask students to partner read one article and discuss and fill out an organizer as they read.  The organizer asks them to provide specific examples of intelligence under of variety of categories like; communicates, shows emotion, etc.  After all the partners are done, students share what they learned.  Lastly,  I ask them to find an active animal and observe it for five minutes.  Tell them to look for signs of intelligence.  You can give them a sheet such as this.  Click on the image to download.

worksheet for recording observations

List of Intelligent Animals Students Might Observe


birds (bluejays, crows, woodpeckers, pigeons, etc.)









More Fun!

Finally, ask students to find out more about the animal they observed.  They can search “how does a ________ show intelligence?  I think they will be pleasantly surprised at what they find!  Besides which, it’s a great way to integrate reading and writing too!

Here are links to our animal intelligence resources if you are interested.  You only need one, as they are similar.

link to TpT shop for reading passages tpt resource about backyard animals

You might also enjoy reading about spider webs and engage your students with a spider web building STEAM challenge.

And remember, it’s all science!


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