More on Bird Smarts

I’ve discussed the intelligence of birds like crows before. Let’s look a bit more into the subject in a little more scientific depth. Why do mammals like dogs, coyotes, cats, and horses learn all kinds of behaviors in the wild or from their trainers while birds mostly act by instinct? It mostly has to do with the structure of the brain. To offer a very simple explanation, the cerebrum or forebrain (the thinking part of the brain) is larger in mammals while the cerebellum (the part of the brain that coordinates movement) is larger in birds. So birds, with several exceptions, rely on instinct for their daily activities. But that’s a great oversimplification.

Birds do learn. They are born with the genetic information that allows them to build a nest, but with practice, learning, the nests get better. They have the genetic information to allow them to sing basic parts of their characteristic song, but they have to hear their parents sing it to perfect it. Young birds have to learn to escape from predators and not frantically fly away when a leaf blows past them. But birds cannot perform at the same level as mammals – think dolphins, monkeys, or dogs.

Coming close, though, are parrots. They can perform complex tasks and mimic sounds as can some members of the crow family. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “the brains of parrots and songbirds contain on average twice as many neurons as primate brains of the same mass, indicating that avian brains have higher neuron packing densities than mammalian brains. Large-brained parrots and corvids have forebrain neuron counts equal to or greater than primates with much larger brains. The large numbers of neurons concentrated in high densities in the cerebrum substantially contribute to the neural basis of avian intelligence.”

An extensive article on cognitive ornithology provides a lengthy explanation as to why primates, corvids (crow family) and parrots evolved such intellectual abilities. Seems as it has to do with food. They all have to find food, protect the food from competitors, sometimes by caching it and finding it later, extract the food from its shell or case. And primates, parrots and corvids all live in very social situations, requiring complex interactions in the group and all have young that require an extended developmental period before they become nutritionally dependent from their parents.

There has been some research on the genetic basis for intelligence in these birds, as well as their longevity and ability to combat cancer, but just look at the ecological implications. As birds (and primates and other organisms) make their way through life, they are subject to many challenges. The ones that figure out the best strategy to meet these challenges and/or happen to have a physical adaptation that gives them a bit of an advantage are the ones who will have more offspring. Whether it’s the flexibility of parrots’ feet with two opposable back toes or the ability of crows and ravens to eat just about anything, these adaptations put them ahead of many other birds. Combined with their brain anatomy, they have become very intelligent animals.

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