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Brainy Birds

Mar 22, 2021


Birds’ brains are more sophisticated than a certain epithet would imply

birdbrained \ 'b?rd-brand   \ adjective

1: a dumb person


The term “bird-brained” was derived in the 1600s to describe someone as “flighty” or “scattered,” or “dumb,” yet it is truly a misnomer when you use it to describe actual birds. Though bird brains are much smaller than humans, their proportionally higher neuron counts could provide them with greater “cognitive power” per pound than mammals.1

Birds can plan, problem-solve, reason, learn, teach and empathize – traits that were once thought unique to humans. Like us, birds have to figure out how to obtain food, how to get along with others and how to defend territory. The difference, however, is in how birds use these traits.

Birds learn and remember remarkably well. In a study of White-crowned Carla-Mason-593Sparrow-WC_(10583701)Sparrow migration, a flock was taken to New Jersey, 3,000 miles away from their migratory path on the West Coast. After just a few hours, the birds were flying solo back to their wintering grounds in southern California and Mexico, including young birds who had only made the migratory journey once before.2 Can you imagine a person being able to do this without a smart phone?

Birds use calls and songs to communicate. Scientists who studied the varied calls of Black-capped Chickadees declared their system of communication “among the most sophisticated and exacting of any land animal.”2 The number of “dees,” tells other chickadees the size and degree of threat. They also have a gargling call used when a lower-ranking bird gets close to a higher-ranking one, and make a high-pitched “see” alarm call when a predator is approaching quickly.

Birds locHummer_(10613182)ate themselves in space. Rufous Hummingbirds can relocate a flower after visiting it once for only a few seconds. They also can remember whether or not they’ve visited a certain flower, and can calculate how long it will be before that flower refills its nectar.2

Birds make and use tools. The Galapagos Island’s Woodpecker Finch uses its bill to hold a twig and probe the bark of trees for insects. In a study of New Caledonian Crows, researchers discovered the birds can create compound tools, something that has only ever been observed before in humans and great apes. The crows were given objects that were individually too short, but which could be combined to make a tool long enough to reach food. Withonew_caledonian_crowut any help, the crows figured out how to partially insert a plunger into a barrel to make a longer tool that could reach the food treat, and they accomplished the task within 4-6 minutes of interacting with the objects.3 Captive Blue Jays have reportedly used strips of newspaper to rake in food pellets from outside their cages.4

Birds deceive and manipulate. Blue Jays, a member of the same bird family – corvid – as crows, will mimic hawk calls to warn other jays in their flock that danger is near. But they’ve also been seen reproducing the raptor’s call in order to scare off other songbirds, making them believe a hawk is around.

Birds are self-aware. The Magpie, another member of the corvid family – the “masterminds” of the avian world - has the ability to recognize itself in the mirror, one of the first signs of social behavior. Self-recognition was once thought to be something only humans and certain select primates enjoyed. Of hundreds of animals tested besides humans, only four apes, bottlenose dolphins and Asian Elephants have also passed the “mirror mark test.”5magpie

“For a long time having a ‘bird brain’ was considered to be a bad thing: Now it turns out that it should be a compliment,” said Vanderbilt University neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel.

While many of us simply enjoy our avian friends for their outward beauty, charm and song, there is so much to discover about their amazing inner lives. As it turns out, their beauty is more than feather deep!

Chickadee Photo by Carla Mason
New Caledonian Crow Photo: NewScientist.com
Magpie Photo by Circled Thrice/Flicker.com

1“Birds have primate-like numbers of neurons in the forebrain,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 

2The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman

3 “Compound tool construction by New Caledonian crows,” Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, and the University of Oxford