December 2005/January 2006 Report:

Holiday Cogitation: Can Birds Think?
Should We Care?

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Courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

A hundred years ago, a revered human anatomist declared that birds could not possibly be intelligent because their brains were basically different from humans. Birds were simple automatons, acting only on instinct. Birds and most animals were beneath respect. This is still taught in most biology textbooks.

Not. In February of 2005, as reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience Review by The New York Times, Science Times, February 1, 2005, page D1, in her remarkable article "Minds of Their Own: Birds Gain Respect", Sandra Blakeslee said:

    An international group of avian experts is issuing what amounts to a manifesto. Nearly everything within anatomy textbooks about the brains of birds is wrong they say. The avian brain is as complex, flexible and inventive as any mammalian brain. (This group represented a consortium of 29 scientists from six countries who met for 7 years to develop language reflecting new understanding of bird and mammal brain anatomies.)

Birds are intelligent. It's official.

There are differing theories as to why, but it is understood there is a bird way to create intelligence, much like but different from the mammalian.

To be technical, it is now believed that the bird's cerebrum is like that of the mammal. A large area of cell clusters in the bird's cerebrum functions like the layers of flat cells in mammals needed for cognitive behavior. Complex behavior like tool making or vocalization comes from the interaction between higher and lower regions of the brain as in humans. (Ibid, page D1)

What about size? A bird's brain compared to a human is very small, but then, so is a transistor. How smart are they? We're still finding out. In her Times article, Blakeslee reviews demonstrable scientific evidence, developed worldwide:

    Crows (of the talented Corvid bird family, which includes jays, ravens, jackdaws, magpies, as well as crows) are gifted tool makers. They do not use a simple stick in a hole for ants to crawl up. Using beak and feet they fashion complex tools - hooks and barbs and spears of barbed leave for reaching food. (Ibid, page D4) They have also been known to carry tool kits with them, and to carry duplicate spare tools because other birds steal them.

Writer Blakeslee continues:

    Clark Nutcrackers (and others) are known for hiding thousands of seeds and remembering their location, up to 6 months later. Even the lowly pigeon, it is scientifically reported, can memorize up to 725 different visual patterns and are capable of deception. Magpies at an extremely early age understand when an object disappears behind a screen, it is still there.The Parrot family, like the Corvids, is also gifted. Nascent research shows parrots can actually converse with humans, invent syntax and teach other parrots what they know. (Ibid, Page D4)


The concept of zero seems obvious to us, but according to World Science (Special Report July 2, 2005) it only came into widespread use in the Western world in the 1600s. (India used it a thousand years earlier.) Alex, a now famous 28 year old Gray parrot, recently began without prompting, using the word "none" to describe an absence of quantity, according to researchers at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Whether he understood "none" is true zero is being tested. They think he can and it occurred spontaneously.

Individual birds have personalities. Research now being done at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology is investigating personality types of wild birds; the importance of genes of the personalities of wild birds; and the effect different personalities have on their survival in hopes of tracking whether the same forces behind the evolution of bird personalities are at work in ourselves. (The New York Times, Science Times, March 1, 2005, page D1, "Looking for Personality in Birds, of All People." By Carl Zimmer.)

And on it goes clear, scientifically verifiable evidence of thinking and feeling (sentient) non-human beings. Birds in this case. Some, smarter than others.

Can we have caring concern?

Stellar Jay in Shadow Near Lake Tahoe, CA
Courtesy Dan and Stella Wolf

As great, dominant narcissists, humans use all living things for their own disposal, now pushing countless bird species and other creatures to extinction, helpless before us.* In our time. Now. Can we ever intelligently limit our predations and mayhem towards these "others", as well as our own kind? If we did not know Stephen Hawking was human, would we eat him??

The answer is unfortunate.

The Best of Love to All This Season.
God speed Noah's Ark.

-- Wild Birds for the 21st Century

Basic References:

    Leakey, Richard and Roger Lewin. The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

    Savage, Candace. Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies and Jays. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1995.





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