Bird Brains

Don’t call anyone a bird brain unless you are complimenting them. In the last couple decades, researchers worldwide have been discovering how amazing bird brains are. That should not be a surprise since feathered winged animals that fly have been evolving on earth for more than 150 million years, according to recent genetic analyses.

Neuroscientists Suzana Herculano-Houzel and Pavel Nemec recently published a paper entitled “Birds have Primate-like Numbers of Neurons in the Forebrain,” in which they write that the brains of birds are organized much like those of primates.

“We found that birds, especially songbirds and parrots, have surprisingly large neurons in their pallium: the part of the brain that corresponds to [our] cerebral cortex, which supports higher cognition functions such as planning for the future or finding patterns.”

To truly understand how intelligent birds are, researchers study how a species behaves in the wild, conduct experiments with captive birds, and compare what they see in the field with what they learn in the lab about a species’ genes and cells.

Some bird species seem to learn as little as possible to get along. Others are bird Einsteins. Most are in between. But relatively few of the more than 9000 species of birds worldwide have been studied in detail. And in much of the last century, even though people had been reporting anecdotally what appeared to be the intelligent actions of some birds such as crows and ravens, scientists had not begun any systematic studies of birds’ brains.

An American crow on a fence post

An American crow on a fence post (Photo by Joe McKenna on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

While some of us have watched parrots dance to music and New Caledonian crows solve problems on You Tube, many of our common birds are just as clever. American crows, for example, are adept at problem-solving. One researcher observed an American crow carrying water in a Frisbee to dampen its dried mash and another one using the end of a plastic slinky toy to scratch its head while it was perching.

According to research by John Marzluff in Washington State, American crows can recognize human faces, using the same parts of their brains to do this as we do. They plan ahead when they find and then leave a gift for a human who has been feeding them. In addition, they will delay gratification if they think they will be offered something better (usually food) at a later time.

Common ravens are socially adept, remembering other ravens they were friendly with before they paired for life, recalling those special friends even after they have been separated for three years.

A blue jay with an acorn

A blue jay with an acorn (Photo by Jeff Hart on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Still another member of the Corvid family, our blue jays, can accurately select fertile acorns 88% of the time and can count to five. They also mimic red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks. Blue jays often mimic the latter on our mountain and fool us. Some scientists hypothesize that they do this to trick other blue jays into thinking that there’s a raptor in the area and they need to leave, giving the blue jay imitating the red-tail time to harvest acorns without competition.

Another scientist noticed that a blue jay was smart enough to rub red ants on its body to get rid of the ants’ formic acid before eating them.

Because more than 80% of bird species are socially monogamous, staying with one partner for a season or even, in some cases, for life, they have developed “relationship intelligence,” which is an ability to understand what their partners want or need and respond in order to successfully breed and raise their young.

But apparently 90% of both sexes also sneak off to copulate with others without getting caught by their partners. This results in more healthy offspring.

In autumn, birds that store food for the winter, such as black-capped chickadees, grow new cells in their brain center (the hippocampus) which deals with spatial memory. This allows them to remember where they hid seeds months later.

A brown-headed cowbird female in Codorus State Park

A brown-headed cowbird female in Codorus State Park, near Hanover, Pennsylvania (Photo by Henry T. McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Brood parasites such as brown-headed cowbirds, especially the females, have large hippocampuses, because they are the ones that must lay their eggs in other species’ nests. They must find, remember, and revisit the nests they parasitize.

And invasive bird species, such as house sparrows and European starlings, have larger brains, are innovative, and have more flexible behavior because they must adapt to a foreign environment.

But our brainiest birds may be hummingbirds, because their brain is the largest brain relative to its size, a whopping 4.2% of their total body weight. Their hippocampus is five times larger than that of songbirds, seabirds and woodpeckers. They can remember every flower in their territory and how long it takes them to refill with nectar after they feed from them.

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a feeder

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a feeder (Photo by likeaduck on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

From year to year at home and in migration they also remember where every feeder is. They even learn which feeder people are responsible or irresponsible and have huge episodic memories that allow them to plan when and where to feed on hundreds of flowers a day.

The females watch older females making nests to learn how to do this because female hummers are on their own once they have bred. They must build their nests, brood their eggs, and feed their young alone.

Hummingbirds have the ability to move backwards, forwards, and sideways because they have more complex brains. In the part of their brain that responds to visual stimuli, instead of the usual back-to-front preference most animals and humans have, hummingbirds have no preference and can move in any direction.

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a flower

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a flower (Photo by chrisdupe on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

During their mating flights, which we’ve watched with awe from our front porch, they make instantaneous course corrections much faster than a fighter jet. Thus, their brains can move efficiently in three dimensions, which some scientists believe makes their tiny brains the most complicated of any vertebrate species.

Hummingbirds have not been considered songbirds, but biologists Claudio Mello and Erich Jarvis have found that hummingbirds have the same areas in their brains that control song learning and production as songbirds and parrots. They do sing in a higher pitch than songbirds, but their songs are amazingly rich, and in some species, complex.

Neurobiologists have been comparing birdsong with human speech and language. Like human children, young birds listen to other birds of their species to learn songs. They imitate and practice, seemingly using the same brain structures and genes to learn songs as children use to learn language. Some birds even stutter.

There is incredible variety in birdsong, as various as the 4,000 songbirds on our planet. And if you listen as carefully as Donald Kroodsma, who has been studying birdsong, especially in the eastern United States, for more than 40 years, you might be able to hear the 30 to 40 songs of a Carolina wren, the 50 to 100 of an eastern bluebird, the song and mimicking calls of a white-eyed vireo, the 30 to 40 songs of the ethereal wood thrush, the 200 to 400 different mimicking songs and calls of a gray catbird, the 100 songs of a northern mockingbird, and the 2,000 of the mimic champion—the brown thrasher.

Then there is the hermit thrush whose song has been compared to human musical scales with trills and slides reminiscent of a woodwind instrument. Some ornithologists have claimed that hermit thrushes sing major, minor and pentatonic (five note) scales.

But composer Emily Doolittle and biologist Tecumseh Fitch didn’t believe it. Still, using recordings of 14 hermit thrushes from the Borror Laboratory at Ohio State University, they started analyzing the pitches of 114 song types. When they slowed them down, they could hear their harmonies.

A hermit thrush singing

A hermit thrush singing (Photo by Yankech gary on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

“They jumped out at us,” Doolittle said, adding that 70% of the hermit thrushes’ songs were harmonic.

And maybe most miraculous of all to us are our songbirds that migrate. Scientists have found that at first they rely on genetic information for both direction and distance until they gain experience. Then they use their own brain maps to find their way. They build up magnetic maps during migration and some may use odor to help guide them. Some researchers even think they may hear a landscape infrasonically, especially the ocean, to help navigate. But to do all that and more they must possess fantastic spatial memories.

Every day, it seems, more is being revealed about the brains of birds. It’s a hot topic. For instance, researchers have recently found that the bird that is closest to its dinosaur ancestors is our own wild turkey. That’s because, since the days of feathered dinosaurs, the wild turkey’s chromosomes have had fewer changes than those of other birds. And, as any hunter knows, wild turkeys are wily and smart.