A Look At Birds’ Brains

Considering the Brains of Birds

Do you ever consider the term “bird brain?” When we look at birds, from the tiniest finches to the huge macaws, we are not looking at a particularly massive brain case (or skull). In the past, man has seen the bird species as not possessing much in the way of brains. However, the intelligence of birds has astounded us, particularly since Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s work with Alex, the African grey who communicates and understands what he says. Those of us who maintain parrots are often amazed when the birds communicate to us and seem to be speaking intelligently with the phrases they use. Often, we are certain that they understand precisely what they are saying.

When we contemplate the size of the brain, we may question how much it can potentially hold due to its tiny size. We should no longer be surprised by the quantity of information carried in a bird’s brain, regardless of size, now that we live in the computer era and are acquainted with microchips. Size seems to be simply one issue to consider.

A small story titled “Bird Brains” appears on page 30 of the January 1998 edition of the magazine Scientific American. According to the report, certain birds’ brains within the same species are bigger than other birds’ brains. Tony Tramontin, a doctoral student at the University of Washington, researched the development of brain areas connected to singing in white-crowned sparrows in conjunction with psychology and biology experts. He discovered that social factors influenced the development of these brain areas. Previously, it was considered that the lengthened days and hormonal shifts caused alterations in the brains of these birds. However, Tramontin discovered that in male birds living with females, brain areas developed 15 to 20% bigger than in male birds living alone or with other males. The term “electronic commerce” refers to the sale of electronic goods.

This certainly gives us pause to consider the significance of early same-species socialization in our parrots, particularly finches and softbills. It is frequently upsetting for bird breeders to match together domestically raised birds in the hopes of producing a breeding pair, only to learn that the male bird has little interest in a female of his species or, worse, is openly antagonistic to her. A little examination on the history of these problem birds generally indicates that there was little or no early same-species socialization experienced by the male.

The condition seems to be less noticeable in female parrots, although this may merely be an appearance. Some females in psittacine species may not display precopulatory behavior that involves solicitation by the female as part of the process. When this happens, the regular male bird attempting to mate with the female may leave the pairing activity or assault the female. There is still a lot to learn about exotic species behavior, such as the significance of signals shown by men and females throughout the mating process and performing a lot more observation of our birds.

“The Minds of Birds,” a fascinating book, has been published. Alexander F. Skutch is an ornithologist who has studied birds for over 60 years. He has created an outstanding book drawn from his research of birds in the tropics and in the temperate zone. In 17 chapters, he covers topics including Recognition of Individuals, Memory and Anticipation, Social Life, Emotions, Play, Counting and Timing, Tool Using, Aesthetic Sense, Dissimulation, Mental Conflicts, Intelligent Birds, Apparently Stupid Behavior, Freedom and Altruism, The Brain and Senses, Homing and Migration, and The Mind of a Parrot. He begins by debunking the widely accepted idea that birds are not intelligent. By the end of this book, you will very likely have changed your thinking about bird minds!

Some of the signs that birds are intelligent include the fact that many bird species in the wild have the capacity to identify members of their own species as individuals and, remarkably, even to recognize familiar people even after a lengthy absence. (Keep in mind, these are birds in the wild, not pets.) These wild birds have strong memory and have problem-solving abilities. Skutch demonstrates that of all animals, only humans take more extensive care of their children than most birds do. Few animals of any sort live in as tightly knit family groupings as cooperatively breeding birds. Wild birds participate in a wide range of play behaviors and show signs of satisfaction. Some birds have been seen using tools to make visually beautiful structures. The migration of migrating species across thousands of kilometres demonstrates memory and navigational ability.

As the following quotation demonstrates, this book is chock-full of fascinating material: “To study how birds identify humans, observers would occasionally attempt to fool them with strange clothing. Oskar Heinroth, a German ornithologist, had a pheasant that courted him and battled his wife as a competitor. When the pair switched clothing, the bird began to attack Herr Heinroth in his wife’s dress, paused, inspected their faces, then flew at Frau Heinroth in pants. Even when Katarina Heinroth and her sister swapped clothes, the pheasant recognized his ‘enemy.'” This book has so much fascinating information on bird species that I believe it to be one of the most useful in my library. The Minds of Birds, which was copyrighted in 1996, is available for $19.95 plus $3 shipping and handling through Texas A&M University’s Trade Books Department. (Texans must pay sales tax.) Call (409) 845-8681, fax (409) 862-7417, or e-mail [email protected] for further information. It is available in both cloth (ISBN 0-89096-671-0) and paperback formats (ISBN 0-89096-759-8).

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