National Bird Day 2019: January 5th

National Bird Day 2019: January 5th

Author Isabel Snyder

The blue jay is a common resident of Northern Delaware and a part of Corvidae encompassing many of the smartest birds. Photo from Wikipedia.

The blue jay is a common resident of Northern Delaware and a part of Corvidae encompassing many of the smartest birds. Photo from Wikipedia.

Throughout civilization, humans have dreamed of flight. Perhaps it draws us because flight seems like total freedom, or maybe we seek the exhilaration of speeding through air far above the ground. More than insects or bats, birds capture our attention, perhaps because they seem to rule the skies, flying high, far, and fast.

We have misunderstood birds and their intelligence for a long time. The term “bird brain” first emerged in the 1920s, as people thought birds were simple machines, relying on sole instinct to navigate the world. Dissections of avian brains showed an entirely unfamiliar structure that seemingly lacked a cortex, an area of the brain integral to thought.

However, recent research has shown that birds don’t lack parts of the brain important to us mammals. Their brains just have a different organization.

The  Archaeopteryx  fossil, first unearthed in 1861, provided the “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Archaeopteryx fossil, first unearthed in 1861, provided the “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The ancestors of birds and mammals split around three hundred million years ago, when the synapsid and sauropsid lines diverged. Synapsids eventually gave rise to mammals, and sauropsids led to reptiles, dinosaurs, and birds (Marshall). Both ancestors had primitive brains, meaning that our similarly complex brains evolved separately.

But how similar are our brains? Though their brains are far smaller, birds have a higher density of neurons. For example, parrots have as many neurons as mid-size primates in much smaller heads. Also, researchers have shown that birds and mammals have similar activation areas when engaged in the same tasks, such as navigating.


The anatomy and workings of the avian brain can only tell us so much. In experimental performance, birds have demonstrated a large variety of skills and intelligence.

The pigeon’s impressive navigational capabilities led to its use as a messenger for thousands of years, including to relay the news of the Battle of Waterloo. Today, pigeon races still occur. Photo from Pixabay.

The pigeon’s impressive navigational capabilities led to its use as a messenger for thousands of years, including to relay the news of the Battle of Waterloo. Today, pigeon races still occur. Photo from Pixabay.

For example, pigeons have exceptional navigational abilities. From more than a thousand miles, pigeons can find their way home. Studies show that pigeons rely on a combination of cues, including, visual, magnetic, olfactory, and auditory.

The wood thrush and some other songbirds can control both sides of their vocal organs separately, allowing them to sing with two distinct voices at once. Photo by Amado Demesa under    Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic    license.

The wood thrush and some other songbirds can control both sides of their vocal organs separately, allowing them to sing with two distinct voices at once. Photo by Amado Demesa under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Songbirds sing far better than we do. Birds that imitate others, such as mockingbirds, learn the songs of many species and practice their skills often—for good reason, as research shows that those who can better imitate other birds mate more frequently. Studies have even demonstrated that black-capped chickadees change the organization of their warning calls depending on the the threat they are announcing.

The California scrub jay is well-known for its thievery. These jays have displayed great memory and spatial understanding. They also can imagine what other jays know and think—a necessary skill for protecting food caches. Photo unchanged by Allan Hack under    Attribution-ShareAlike Generic 2.0    license.

The California scrub jay is well-known for its thievery. These jays have displayed great memory and spatial understanding. They also can imagine what other jays know and think—a necessary skill for protecting food caches. Photo unchanged by Allan Hack under Attribution-ShareAlike Generic 2.0 license.

California and Woodhouse’s scrub jays store caches of food throughout the fall, burying insects and nuts. They also rely on stealing from other jays’ caches. One study found that up to 30% of a jay’s caches may be stolen in a single day. To deal with this, the birds have developed both complex pilfering and defense tactics. One example is recaching: when watched by another jay, a jay burying a cache will often dig up its cache and either move it or only pretend to, trying to deceive the observer.

New Caledonian crows display sophisticated tool use. Their beaks have over time become specialized to using tools. Photo unchanged by Natalie Uomini under    Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic    license.

New Caledonian crows display sophisticated tool use. Their beaks have over time become specialized to using tools. Photo unchanged by Natalie Uomini under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

New Caledonian crows are one of only four species that create their own complex tools for use, the others being orangutans, chimpanzees, and humans. These crows make two tools: one a hook made from a twig, and the other a tool created from the barbed leaves of the pandanus tree. The crows use both tools to fish out grubs from rotten trees. Parents teach their chicks the skill, and chicks have to try many times before they get it right. There are geographic differences as to what kind of tool the crows make, which imply transmission and adaptation of knowledge over generations, one of the reasons our species succeeded.

Great tits have shown surprising inventiveness: in Swaythling, England in 1921, homeowners who had milk delivered to their front door found the cap open and no cream, a phenomenon that quickly spread throughout the country and, eventually, Europe. Many birds, including blue tits, had learned by watching each other. Photo by Ian Kirk, under    Creative Commons       Attribution 2.0 Generic    license.

Great tits have shown surprising inventiveness: in Swaythling, England in 1921, homeowners who had milk delivered to their front door found the cap open and no cream, a phenomenon that quickly spread throughout the country and, eventually, Europe. Many birds, including blue tits, had learned by watching each other. Photo by Ian Kirk, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Beyond these few examples, many birds display fascinating abilities and behaviors, classifying them as far smarter than ever thought before. Not only does studying bird behavior and intelligence yield interesting results, it also can reveal important aspects of our species’ development and evolution.

If you want to learn more about birds and their intelligence, I highly recommend reading The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. Birds have always enchanted me and this book taught me a lot and inspired this article. Happy National Bird Day!

Citation*:

Marshall, Michael. “Timeline: The Evolution of Life.” New Scientist, New Scientist, 14

    July 2009, www.newscientist.com/article/dn17453-timeline-the-evolution-of-life/.

*Note: I gathered all of the uncited information in this article from The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman.

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