The Smarter We Get…

Birds are smart and we ornithologists are continually elucidating the ways birds view their environment and respond to it. Recall my recent blog The Crow’s Story.

The books and research papers coming out now reveal a whole new world of bird behavior and brain function. I read Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds a while back and just finished her The Bird Way, which discusses recent research on bird intelligence and behavior. There’s also Avian Cognition by Debra Herrmann and Bird Brain:An Exploration of Avian Intelligence by Nathan Emery.

Why all this new information on bird brains and brainy birds? Mostly because new technology and methodologies have allowed us to discover more. Ever since the first century AD people tied physical objects to bird legs to send messages, and for the past 100 years or so bird banding was the major way to gather data on wild birds other than watching them in the field. But banding had limitations and was often supplemented or replaced by other techniques. Years ago I participated in a high-tech (at the time) project to follow radio-tagged Hermit Thrushes on their migration. This meant hours of driving and tracking over a limited distance for little information. And then the radio battery died. But radio telemetry is still used.

A solar telemetry unit attached to a backpack style harness on a Bald Eagle

Today we have GPS and other satellite-based tags placed on birds. Some of these solar-powered tags are as light as 5 grams (.2 oz). There are even smaller tags that communicate with each other to assess social behavior and reconstruct the movements of the birds. There are data loggers that can be placed on birds to record information such as ambient temperature, the bird’s body temperature and respiratory rate, flight speed, and so forth. As the loggers tend to be a few ounces, they are mainly used on albatrosses, penguins, murres, ibises and other large birds. There are also video loggers that record 90 plus minutes of video of birds’ movements, foraging behavior and food, habitat use, and interactions with other birds, conspecifics or not. Of course, we also have bird cams to watch the activities of nesting birds.

Over the past 20 years or so, we discovered that birds see UV and use that ability in surprising ways, that some birds are very good at detecting scents, even using them to navigate or distinguish individuals. We have learned that birds’ hearing is not only acute, but it never declines. Ornithologists have learned more about birds’ mental abilities by developing tests to see how birds solve problems.

DNA studies tell us that parrots are smart because regions of the parrot genome that regulate when and how genes for brain development are turned on are the same as those found in humans New Scientist, 2018.

Fossil research into the evolution of brain size shows that many bird families shrank in body size while their brains shrank less, giving them a higher brain to body size than their ancestors. This is especially true for the parrot and crow families Science Direct, 2020.

Seems that the smarter we get the smarter we find that birds are.

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