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Birdbrains

The Astonishing Genius of Birds

The female hummingbird will spend about seven days weaving her tiny, cup-shaped nest—about 1.5 inches in diameter—and will then lay two eggs smaller than jellybeans. When migrating to the United States in spring, hummingbirds fly 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico for 20 hours without stopping.

The female hummingbird will spend about seven days weaving her tiny, cup-shaped nest—about 1.5 inches in diameter—and will then lay two eggs smaller than jellybeans. When migrating to the United States in spring, hummingbirds fly 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico for 20 hours without stopping.

Birds are finally getting their intellectual due.

New scientific research is blowing away those unfounded assumptions about avian intelligence and producing a revolution in our understanding of bird cognition.

Think “birdbrain” is an insult? Think again. The beautiful and amazing birds that inhabit our yards and wilderness are more than mindless descendants of dinosaurs. The misguided use of “birdbrain” as a slur is finally coming home to roost. The term comes from the long-held belief that a bird’s nut-sized brain is too small for anything but instinctive behavior and has no capacity for thought.

However, consider for a moment what they do: Migrating birds travel hundreds or thousands of miles to their wintering grounds in Central America and Mexico and return to the exact spot they started from, using the Earth’s magnetic field, the stars and sun to navigate, and their own mapping of landmarks.

They are architects and composers. They make and use tools, design and build nests, learn language, and produce one of the most glorious phenomena in nature: birdsong. They remember the past and plan for the future. They can count, problem-solve, recognize faces, and form social and emotional relationships.

How can this be? They don’t have a neocortex, the seat of cognition. Yet, in a new study from 2018, scientists from the University of Chicago proved that neurons in bird brains form the same kind of circuity and have the same molecular signature as cells in the mammalian neocortex. 

Parrots and birds in the corvid family, such as crows, jays, ravens, and magpies, are considered the smartest of the species, thanks to large forebrains with densely packed neurons. They are among the most sociable and exhibit behaviors that might be expected of primates.

It was an African Grey parrot named Alex who helped disprove the long-held theories about avian intelligence. Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at Brandeis and Harvard Universities, bought Alex when he was a year old, and they worked together for 30 years (1976–2007) to prove that some birds have intellectual abilities to rival those of primates.

By the time he died, prematurely, at the age of 31, he had mastered a vocabulary of hundreds of English words and understood their meaning. He could add and subtract and grasped abstract concepts such as zero or none. He could identify different objects and colors and stunned researchers by asking questions—the only animal to ever do so. On the night before he died, he said his usual goodnight to Pepperberg: “You be good. I love you. See you tomorrow.”

The scientific community sat up and took notice. Their view of avian intelligence was about to change.

For example, we know that crows are smart, but how smart? Very. Measuring a bird’s IQ is tricky, but in lab tests, when crows were given complicated puzzles to solve, they shocked researchers with their cognitive abilities. And although many bird species use simple tools for foraging, in the wild none surpasses the New Caledonian crow’s sophisticated hooked tools—the most complex in the animal kingdom. 

Corvids may be the brainiacs of the winged world, but what about the other birds who frequent our backyards? 

Consider the humble and ubiquitous sparrow, introduced to the United States in 1851 when imported from England to control a plague of moths in Brooklyn. Their skill in adapting to change helped them survive and thrive in an alien environment. Unfazed, they moved into gardens and rooftops and built nests in amazing places—from rafters and streetlights to hanging flowerpots.

There are birds that cache their food and remember where they put it. The Clark’s nutcracker, for example, will hide up to 33,000 seeds over several miles in preparation for winter and remember exactly where each one is. 

But there’s so much more. What about the incredible beauty of birdsong? How does a bird learn the complex vocalizations they use to defend territory, attract mates, and sing for the pure joy of it? 

Think about the brilliance of the chickadee, whose complicated vocabulary has been declared by scientists to be among the most exacting and sophisticated systems of communication among animals. 

Birds also build nests that would confound an architect—from the eagle’s megamansion or the hummingbird’s jewel woven with spider silk and leaves to the mud structures of the swallow? The list goes on.

Their brainy brilliance aside, watching them is a fascinating pastime. According to the Colorado Bird Records Committee of Colorado Field Ornithologists, as of November 2018, our state is blessed with 507 species. 

Interested? The Aiken Audubon Society, the local branch of the national organization, offers exciting field trips and birding programs from September through May. “Everyone is welcome,” says Aiken President Anna Joy Lehmicke. “You don’t need to be a birder or know anything about birds. Just an appreciation of nature.”

Time to get out your binoculars and be amazed. 

For More Information

Aiken Audubon Society Colorado Springs: http://aikenaudubon.com 

Colorado Birding Trail: http://coloradobirdingtrail.com 

Cornell Lab of Ornithology Cornell University: www.birds.cornell.edu 

The Genius of Birds: By Jennifer Ackerman

“Crows, Smarter Than You Think”: TED Talk by John Marzluff