Examining Bird Brains & Intelligence: Are Birds Smart or Dumb?

Considering the Brains of Birds

Think about the expression “bird brain” from time to time. When we examine birds, ranging from the tiniest finches to the largest macaws, we do not observe a particularly huge brain case in any of them (or skull). In the past, people have had the misconception that members of the bird species do not possess too much intelligence. However, the intelligence of birds has astounded us, particularly since since Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s research work with Alex the African grey, who communicates and is able to make sense out of what he says. People who maintain parrots are frequently taken aback when their birds start talking to them and surely give off the impression that they are speaking intelligently with the language that they are saying. Quite frequently, the circumstances are such that we are certain that they are aware of every detail of what they are stating.

When we take into account how little the brain is, we could be tempted to question how much information it is actually capable of storing given its size. Since we humans now live in the age of computers and are familiar with microchips, we shouldn’t be surprised by the quantity of information stored in the brain of a bird, regardless of the size of its brain. It would appear that size is not the only issue to be considered.

There is a little piece titled “Bird Brains” that can be found in the issue of the journal Scientific American that was published in January of 1998 on page 30. According to the information provided in the article, the brains of certain birds of the same species are larger than those of other birds of the same species. The University of Washington doctoral student Tony Tramontin, in conjunction with faculty members in the departments of psychology and zoology, conducted research on the development of brain areas in white-crowned sparrows that are associated with singing. He came to the conclusion that social cues influenced the development of certain regions of the brain. It was previously believed that alterations in these birds’ brains were caused by the lengthening of the days as well as changes in their hormones. However, Tramontin discovered that the brain regions of male birds that lived with females grew 15–20 percent larger than they did in male birds that lived alone or with other males. This was a significant difference. This is the first observation of alterations in the avian forebrain that have been generated by social interaction.

This certainly provides us with food for thought regarding the significance of early socialization of our parrots with other members of the same species, and in particular, with our finches and softbills. When domestically bred birds are placed together in the hope of producing a breeding pair, it can be upsetting for bird breeders to find out that the male bird is either uninterested in the female of his species or, even worse, is openly hostile to her. This can be a frustrating experience for people who breed birds. A cursory investigation into the past of these problematic birds typically indicates that the male had very little or none of the early same-species socialization that other members of the same species do.

Although it may appear that female parrots have fewer visible signs of the disease, this may merely be an appearance. Some females of psittacine species, namely those that have precopulatory activity that includes solicitation by the female as an integral component of the process, do not display this behavior. If this happens, the male bird that is normally interested in mating with the female may either give up on the activity or assault the female. Understanding the significance of signs displayed by both men and females during the mating process is one of the many things that still needs to be studied about the behavior of exotic species. This includes increasing the amount of time spent monitoring our birds.

A magnificent book with the illustrious title “The Minds of Birds” has been written. Alexander F. Skutch, the book’s author, is an ornithologist who has devoted more than six decades of his life to the study of birds. His research on birds that live in both the tropics and the temperate zone provided the basis for an incredible book that he has published. In the course of 17 chapters, he discusses a variety of topics, such as the 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, The Mind of a Parrot, and intelligent birds. He starts out by addressing the widespread misconception that birds do not possess any intelligence. When you have read quite a little of this book, it is highly likely that your previous beliefs about the minds of birds will be completely overturned.

Some of the signs that birds are intelligent include the fact that many bird species in the wild have the ability to recognize members of their own species as individuals and, astonishingly, also to recognize familiar humans even after a long absence. Other signs of bird intelligence include the ability of birds to learn new behaviors and adapt to their environments. (Remember that these are birds that live in the wild and are not kept as pets.) These free-flying birds have strong memories, which is proof that they plan ahead to find solutions to challenges. According to Skutch, only humans provide their young with a level of care and attention that surpasses that of the vast majority of bird species. Only a small number of different kinds of animals live in tightly knit family groupings like the ones that cooperatively breeding birds do. Birds in the wild partake in a wide variety of play behaviors, which suggest that they enjoy themselves. It’s been discovered that certain species of birds are capable of using tools, and the structures they build are known to be rather beautiful. The ability to remember and find one’s way is demonstrated by the migration patterns of several species that cover thousands of miles.

As the following quotation demonstrates, this book contains a great deal of really interesting material: “In order to better understand how birds identify humans, observers would often try to trick the birds by dressing them in disguises. Oskar Heinroth, a German ornithologist, once told a story about a pheasant that pursued him romantically while also competing with his wife. After the pair had changed clothing, the bird began to attack Herr Heinroth while he was wearing his wife’s dress. It then stopped, looked at both of their faces, and proceeded to attack Frau Heinroth while she was wearing pants. Despite the fact that Katarina Heinroth and her sister had switched clothes, the pheasant was still able to identify his “enemy.”” Because it has such a wealth of interesting data pertaining to the various bird species, I believe this to be one of the most important books in my collection. The Minds of Birds was published in 1996 and received a copyright in that year. It can be purchased via the Trade Books Department at Texas A&M University for $19.95 plus $3 for postage and handling. (Texas citizens pay sales tax.) You can get additional details by calling (409) 845-8681, sending a fax to (409) 862-7417, or contacting [email protected] through email. You can get it in either hardcover (ISBN 0-89096-671-0) or paperback form (ISBN 0-89096-759-8).

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