Bird Brains

CT image of a Bird Brain Golden Woodpecker, Melanerpes aurifrons https://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_disp.jsp?med_id=79726
CT image of a Bird Brain
Golden Woodpecker
Melanerpes aurifrons
https://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_disp.jsp?med_id=79726
When I was a young lad being called “bird brain” was an indication that one was lacking in mental capacity.
Over the years I’ve come to question this connotation, and might even consider it a compliment. I suggest that quantity of this gray matter might be outweighed by quality.

Consider the hummingbird brain. Slightly larger than a bibi, it is very capable of feats beyond our imagining. Think unerring migration over hundreds of miles, efficient pollination while suspended in air, extraordinary flight capability, adjusting to extreme environmental challenges of cold, heat, predation, nourishment; exquisite nest design and construction, and so on.

Clark's Nutcracker Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service Dave Menke, Photographer
Clark’s Nutcracker
Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service
Dave Menke, Photographer
Regarding memory, nothing has been found to match the recall ability of the Clark’s nutcracker, which can bury thousands of pine nuts in rugged mountain terrain, finding them with uncanny ability following months of absence. Of course they hoard far more than needed, allowing many to germinate into seedlings- an amazing keystone species responsible for planting millions of trees from Mexico to Canada – this “squirrel bird” of the Rockies.

I’ve watched crows dropping nuts on roadways so they can be crushed open by passing vehicles, then flying down to eat the contents between oncoming traffic. And gulls dropping rocks on our pets to shoo them away from food dishes so they can have their turn at the table.

An ice fisherman was puzzled by a thief who was stealing his fish by pulling the line out of the ice hole and removing the fish. The culprit was finally observed- a raven- who used its beak and feet to gradually pull up the line with fish attached- an easy catch!

How about those mimics- parrots, corvids, starlings, gray catbirds, and the masterful mocking bird who can expand their repertoire of mimics to nearly 100 imitations without a pause.

And let us consider the remarkable Peregrine falcon. How is it possible that this lovely bird can strike a fast moving, highly maneuverable target as it drops from the heavens at a speed approaching 200 mph? Eyes, muscles, and nerves woven in such a manner that allow it to perform this feat is beyond comprehension.

I’ll conclude with perhaps my favorite bird attribute- their vocalizations. The more scientists learn, the richer their communications appear, possessing qualities once ascribed solely to the human language. Recent research has revealed that birds use syntax, which is altering the sequence of notes for variable meanings. Call order matters to them, much like word order does to us. The sound of birds calling isn’t just pretty. It’s full of meaning. I dare you to call me bird brain!

This is Jack Greene writing and reading for Wild About Utah

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy US National Science Foundation & Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service, Dave Menke, Photographer
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Bird IQ Tests: 8 Ways Researchers Test Bird Intelligence, National Audubon, Alexandra Ossola, 9 Dec 2015, http://www.audubon.org/news/bird-iq-tests-8-ways-researchers-test-bird-intelligence

Bird Intelligence: Using Tools, Speech, Memory, Interactive Toys, and Emotional Displays
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith, PetEducation.com, Petco Wellness LLC, http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=15+1795&aid=3342

Here’s Why ‘Birdbrain’ Should Be a Compliment, Simon Worrall, National Geographic, 15 May 2016, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/160515-genius-birds-animal-intelligence-ackerman-ngbooktalk/