Bird Fact Friday: The Blue Jay (As Seen on BirdGenie!)

This week’s Bird Fact Friday highlights the Blue Jay, as seen on BirdGenie. Here are some interesting facts about the bird:

  • These are social, intelligent, alarm birds.
  • They’re common in the Eastern US and Canada.
  • They prefer forest edges, parks, and towns, especially near oaks, as acorns are a favorite food along with other nuts and insects.
  • Blue jays are large, bright blue, and black and white crested.
  • These birds can carry up to five acorns, and can cache thousands in a season.
  • They have a variety of calls, usually given while perched, including mimicry of Red-shouldered and Red-tailed hawks.
  • Up to twenty percent of all ages of Blue Jays migrate each year, but the mechanism is not well understood.
  • They often mate for life.
  • Their lifespan is up to 17 years.
  • Population: 13 million and slightly declining.

Have you seen (or heard) an the Blue Jay?

 

BirdGenie

BirdGenie™ is a breakthrough app that helps anyone with an Apple® or Android® smartphone or tablet accurately identify birds in the backyard, local park, or on the nature trail—all with the tap of a button! Just hold up your phone, record the bird singing, and BirdGenie™ helps you identify the species. The app’s highly developed sound identification ability and expert matching system enable bird enthusiasts to achieve an accuracy unheard of in the birding field. It’s perfect for anyone who wants to learn more about the birds around them.

BirdGenie™ includes up to two hundred vocalization types for one hundred species: literally all of the birds likely to be encountered in a backyard or local park, or on a hike, in North America at any time of the year. And the app is easy to use. Just point your smartphone or tablet at a bird, and tap the screen when the bird starts singing. The app’s automatic pre-record feature ensures that you won’t miss the beginning of the song and BirdGenie’s™ patented, highly accurate expert system matches the recording to the closest species. The app’s sophisticated noise-reduction feature means that even in noisy environments, where there is conversation or traffic, you can discover what bird you’re listening to.

Beyond specifying a bird species, BirdGenie™ provides sample songs and spectrograms to compare with your own recording and to guarantee a confident match. The app also includes pictures of all plumages, information about habitat and behavior, and links to further reading. It even has 3-D models for some of the species so you can match different views of a bird. You can share your recordings, photos, and matches with friends and other users, and if you’re so inclined, you can anonymously share recordings to a scientific database to help researchers learn about birdsong variations. No internet connection is required for anything but sharing, making the program accessible everywhere.

Perfect for anyone who wants to know what birds are singing around them, BirdGenie™ takes bird identification to a whole new awesome level.

With BirdGenie™ you can:

  • Quickly identify most birds just by recording their songs
  • Look at vivid images of the bird—some in 3-D!
  • Listen to samples of the bird’s various songs and compare them with your recording
  • Keep a log of all your recordings
  • Share your recordings, matches, and photos with friends and family
  • Browse the built-in catalog to learn about local species, their other songs, their habits and diet, and much more
  • Use the app anywhere, as no internet connection is required!

Important features of BirdGenie™:

  • The matching expert system beats anything in the market today
  • Easy-to-use guided user interface
  • Effective noise-reduction system helps users make identifications in less-than-ideal environments
  • Complete species accounts with multiple photos for all plumage types (some with 3-D models)
  • Comprehensive spectrograms (voiceprints of songs)

Technical Specifications:

  • Requires iOS 10 or later. Compatible with all iPhones after iPhone 6 including 7, 8, X and iPad, iPad Mini, and iPod Touch.
  • Requires Android 5.0 and above. Compatible with most common Android phones and tablets.

Bird Fact Friday: The American Goldfinch (as seen on BirdGenie!)

This week’s Bird Fact Friday highlights the American Goldfinch, as seen on BirdGenie. Here are some interesting facts about the bird:

  • They are acrobatic, gregarious, and vocal
  • They’re common throughout much of North America in weedy fields, riparian areas, farms, roadsides and backyards
  • They’re small and bright yellow with a black cap in the summer; drab olive and patchy in the winter; unstreaked, with wing bards and a notched tail
  • Often occuring in flocks; buoyant, undulating flight style
  • They have a conical bill which is adapted to seed eating; diet is exclusively vegetarian
  • They favor sunflower and thistle seed at feeders
  • These birds are late nesters in June and July, to take advantage of seeding milkweed, thistle, and other plants
  • They often call in flight, with a bouncy and undulating call style
  • Their lifespan is up to ten years
  • Population: 42 million and stable

Have you seen (or heard) an American Goldfinch?

 

BirdGenie

BirdGenie™ is a breakthrough app that helps anyone with an Apple® or Android® smartphone or tablet accurately identify birds in the backyard, local park, or on the nature trail—all with the tap of a button! Just hold up your phone, record the bird singing, and BirdGenie™ helps you identify the species. The app’s highly developed sound identification ability and expert matching system enable bird enthusiasts to achieve an accuracy unheard of in the birding field. It’s perfect for anyone who wants to learn more about the birds around them.

BirdGenie™ includes up to two hundred vocalization types for one hundred species: literally all of the birds likely to be encountered in a backyard or local park, or on a hike, in North America at any time of the year. And the app is easy to use. Just point your smartphone or tablet at a bird, and tap the screen when the bird starts singing. The app’s automatic pre-record feature ensures that you won’t miss the beginning of the song and BirdGenie’s™ patented, highly accurate expert system matches the recording to the closest species. The app’s sophisticated noise-reduction feature means that even in noisy environments, where there is conversation or traffic, you can discover what bird you’re listening to.

Beyond specifying a bird species, BirdGenie™ provides sample songs and spectrograms to compare with your own recording and to guarantee a confident match. The app also includes pictures of all plumages, information about habitat and behavior, and links to further reading. It even has 3-D models for some of the species so you can match different views of a bird. You can share your recordings, photos, and matches with friends and other users, and if you’re so inclined, you can anonymously share recordings to a scientific database to help researchers learn about birdsong variations. No internet connection is required for anything but sharing, making the program accessible everywhere.

Perfect for anyone who wants to know what birds are singing around them, BirdGenie™ takes bird identification to a whole new awesome level.

With BirdGenie™ you can:

  • Quickly identify most birds just by recording their songs
  • Look at vivid images of the bird—some in 3-D!
  • Listen to samples of the bird’s various songs and compare them with your recording
  • Keep a log of all your recordings
  • Share your recordings, matches, and photos with friends and family
  • Browse the built-in catalog to learn about local species, their other songs, their habits and diet, and much more
  • Use the app anywhere, as no internet connection is required!

Important features of BirdGenie™:

  • The matching expert system beats anything in the market today
  • Easy-to-use guided user interface
  • Effective noise-reduction system helps users make identifications in less-than-ideal environments
  • Complete species accounts with multiple photos for all plumage types (some with 3-D models)
  • Comprehensive spectrograms (voiceprints of songs)

Technical Specifications:

  • Requires iOS 10 or later. Compatible with all iPhones after iPhone 6 including 7, 8, X and iPad, iPad Mini, and iPod Touch.
  • Requires Android 5.0 and above. Compatible with most common Android phones and tablets.

 

Tom Stephenson on the BirdGenie App

Where did the idea for BirdGenie’s technology come from?

TS: I was a musician and played concerts and worked in studios for many years. During this time I became interested in sound design and processing technologies. I continued this interest at Roland Corporation, where I finally got a “real” job, designing multi-channel recorders and mixing consoles. After retiring as director of technology of one of the divisions, I finally had more time for birding.

I had always been interested in vocalizations, often sketching out the shape of songs I was learning. Bird songs are often highly variable from individual to individual across one species. I wanted to find out what unifying elements allowed a member of a species, or us humans, to look beyond those variations and identify a bird as a member of one species.

As part of this study I wrote an article for ABA’s Birding magazine outlining how to identify the songs of different thrasher species, highly variable mimics, using the structure of their songs. Realizing how powerful this kind of analysis could be was a breakthrough for me. I began looking at spectrograms, which are graphics representations, of many different kinds of bird songs. I was trying to find the unifying structures underlying all of the songs of one species.

I was also comparing the general structure of all songs. Were there any universal constants that could help us notice the key unifying features that make one species’ songs unique? These studies, including basics like the elements, phrases and sections of songs, led to the breakthrough vocabulary and analysis of vocalizations in the book I wrote with Scott Whittle, The Warbler Guide.

My background work in signal processing and audio analysis as a musician and designer led me to think more broadly about how these song criteria could be formalized and stereotyped so they could even be used by a computer to help with song identification. After working on this for some time I filed for a patent on these methods and concepts for identifying animal vocalizations, which was finally granted a few years ago now. Sorry for the long-winded answer!

Did you do the programming yourself?

TS: No. That’s tough work! But I had been thinking about how to implement these ideas for some time. I went to an audio trade show and ran into a friend. He had just started working at a prominent software company that created products with highly sophisticated signal processing. I asked him if their processing technologies might work with my ideas. He thought they would and became very interested in the project.

I went up to their offices in, Cambridge, MA, and gave a presentation about the size of the birding marketplace and my strategies. They got excited about these ideas and assigned two engineers to work with me on the project. They first researched all of the academic papers on the topic, and then developed programs to implement those strategies.

The state of the art then, and even now, is black-box-machine-learning. Basically you feed a computer with lots of known examples which are analyzed using a variety of processing tools. The computer develops a map of features for each type. You then present the computer with a new example and it applies those mapped criteria and tries to make an identification. This system works well for music identification and even voice recognition, however birds are just a lot more variable.

We started with warbler songs because I had been working on them for some time and had a good library of examples. After some development time, the program started working very well about 70% of the time. But based on the mistaken identifications it made, I could see the “black box” wasn’t using much of my system. For example, a species, whose songs always have at least two sections, might be mistaken for a species that only sings one-section songs.  When I pointed this out to the programmers they said they could try and “train” the black box with more examples, but they didn’t have any way of seeing the computer’s rules or modifying them manually. That’s why they call it a “black box” system.

I realized that, even though this was state-of-the-art, it wasn’t going to work well with bird songs. I needed a system that allowed for direct injection of the ID criteria I had found to be fundamental to identifying highly variable bird songs. They agreed and the CEO put me in touch with Stephen Pope, who became our programmer for BirdGenie’s engine. He had an extensive background in music technologies, signal processing and computer programming. He immediately understood the need for a new way of designing the engine, using black-box strategies but supplementing them more types of machine learning and with a user-driven rule set and other strategies that could take advantage of my prior work.

A sample of the BirdGenie app.

So is that what makes BirdGenie different from other programs on the market?

TS: Yes, most definitely. BirdGenie’s patented strategies are unique and effective. We use a wide range of rule-based strategies that we can control, modify and improve, which is very different from the standard black-box methods.

When I started working with Stephen my first requirement was that the whole system be transparent. I wanted to be able to “see” what the computer was finding relevant and then modify or add other criteria. So the first program he created was a Tool that shows all of the ID criteria and how they are weighted. We then added more than thirty additional criteria that reflect the important structures and underlying features for all bird songs. And in addition to these general rules, we can add more criteria that are specific to each individual species. Some features, like density and ratio of harmonics, or relationship of silences between elements to element lengths; are not detectable by the human ear, but can be very effective ID criteria.

Stephen’s background at Stanford’s CCRMA, UC Berkley’s CNMAT and Xerox PARC programs made him uniquely qualified to work on the project. Bird song is actually much more difficult than music or even human voice. It’s highly variable and that’s why our methods work so well, using the underlying structures and the similarities that allow even us humans to identify a singing bird.

How do you think users will benefit from BirdGenie?

TS: BirdGenie can help users identify almost all of the birds they find in their backyard or local park. People who feed birds, take hikes, or just enjoy walking in their local natural areas, are often surrounded by singing birds that can be hard-to-see. BirdGenie can help them find the identify of these hidden songsters and learn more about the natural bird life around them.

Here’s an example. I was visiting a family that had a small suburban backyard and a couple of bird feeders. They recognized the Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals and Downy Woodpeckers that visited regularly.

But during a June visit I stepped outside and in about fifteen minutes heard over twenty species of birds singing in their yard. We looked them all up and they realized they had seen most of them, at least briefly. The loud singing of one species, the House Wren, had baffled them for years. Once they realized what a great species that is, they went out and bought a small bird house which it now nests in every year.

We’re hoping that being able to identify and learn more about all of their great local birds, will allow people to enjoy nature even more than they do now, and maybe even get more involved in conservation.

A screenshot of BirdGenie as it records the bird sounds around its user.

Is BirdGenie kid-friendly?

TS: The better question might be “Is it adult friendly?!!” Kids are such great adopters of technology that often they’re more fluent with an iPhone or Android than adults. That being said, we spent a lot of time and resources making BirdGenie very easy to use. The screens and user interface are very simple.  

That might sound like an obvious thing, but actually it takes a lot of work. Simple is not nearly as easy as confusing! We worked with two different design firms, and have done hours of field testing to make sure everything in the program is simple and intuitive, even for adults!

Beyond helping users learn more about their local birds, does BirdGenie have any other benefits?

TS: Yes, we hope so. Users can choose to share their recordings and IDs with us. This is all anonymous, of course. But these data could be very valuable for research.

For example, right now there is no easy way for a scientist to study how Song Sparrow songs vary across the U.S. and Canada. Of course they could get grant money and spend a year or more traveling from state to state. But with BirdGenie’s shared song data, we could generate a large sample set of Song Sparrow songs all across the U.S.

Once we have it, we will make this information available to researchers, who could then use it to target studies in local song dialects and possibly learn more about how songs are learned, the status and distribution of species during different seasons, and more.

Last question: What is the Match Assist feature in BirdGenie?

TS:  Match Assist is a feature unique to BirdGenie. Birds often sing in noisy environments or are difficult to get close enough to so for a good recording. Of course BirdGenie uses powerful noise reduction tools. Even if there are people talking or lawn mowers are going, BirdGenie can usually isolate the bird song and make the identification.

But in cases of really distant birds, or multiple birds singing at once, we have provided an additional tool to help with the identification process. That’s Match Assist. Using this unique feature, users can choose to answer 3 or 4 simple questions about different aspects of a song they recorded. The engine can then use the answers to further isolate a song and make an ID.

For example, one question is whether the bird is singing one sound over and over again, like an American Crow or a Blue Jay, or many different sounds, like a House Wren. This not only can assist in the ID process but also is a way users can learn more about the structure and characteristics of the songs around them.

In many ways, BirdGenie is really an educational tool. It helps users learn more about what birds are singing and living around them, and also helps users become more aware of bird song in general and what makes songs so unique and beautiful.

Bird Fact Friday: The Cedar Waxwing (as seen on BirdGenie!)

This week’s Bird Fact Friday highlights the Cedar Waxwing, as seen on BirdGenie. Here are some interesting facts about the bird:

  • They are flock-oriented, colorful fruit eaters
  • They’re common throughout much of North America in woodlands and open fields, parks and edges, especially near streams
  • They’re medium-sized, slender, crested, large-headed and short-billed. They have brownish heads, chest and back basding to gray, black masks, yellow tail tips, and red spots on their wings. Their smooth tones almost looks airbrushed
  • The red wing tips are waxy secretions, whose function is not known
  • They’re often first detected by their high, thin cals
  • They’re one of the few North American fruit specialists, only occasionally supplementing diet with insects
  • Planting native trees like dogwood or serviceberry may attract waxwings
  • They have a lifespan of up to 8 years
  • Population: ~52 million and stable

Have you seen (or heard) a waxwing?

 

BirdGenie

BirdGenie™ is a breakthrough app that helps anyone with an Apple® or Android® smartphone or tablet accurately identify birds in the backyard, local park, or on the nature trail—all with the tap of a button! Just hold up your phone, record the bird singing, and BirdGenie™ helps you identify the species. The app’s highly developed sound identification ability and expert matching system enable bird enthusiasts to achieve an accuracy unheard of in the birding field. It’s perfect for anyone who wants to learn more about the birds around them.

BirdGenie™ includes up to two hundred vocalization types for one hundred species: literally all of the birds likely to be encountered in a backyard or local park, or on a hike, in North America at any time of the year. And the app is easy to use. Just point your smartphone or tablet at a bird, and tap the screen when the bird starts singing. The app’s automatic pre-record feature ensures that you won’t miss the beginning of the song and BirdGenie’s™ patented, highly accurate expert system matches the recording to the closest species. The app’s sophisticated noise-reduction feature means that even in noisy environments, where there is conversation or traffic, you can discover what bird you’re listening to.

Beyond specifying a bird species, BirdGenie™ provides sample songs and spectrograms to compare with your own recording and to guarantee a confident match. The app also includes pictures of all plumages, information about habitat and behavior, and links to further reading. It even has 3-D models for some of the species so you can match different views of a bird. You can share your recordings, photos, and matches with friends and other users, and if you’re so inclined, you can anonymously share recordings to a scientific database to help researchers learn about birdsong variations. No internet connection is required for anything but sharing, making the program accessible everywhere.

Perfect for anyone who wants to know what birds are singing around them, BirdGenie™ takes bird identification to a whole new awesome level.

With BirdGenie™ you can:

  • Quickly identify most birds just by recording their songs
  • Look at vivid images of the bird—some in 3-D!
  • Listen to samples of the bird’s various songs and compare them with your recording
  • Keep a log of all your recordings
  • Share your recordings, matches, and photos with friends and family
  • Browse the built-in catalog to learn about local species, their other songs, their habits and diet, and much more
  • Use the app anywhere, as no internet connection is required!

Important features of BirdGenie™:

  • The matching expert system beats anything in the market today
  • Easy-to-use guided user interface
  • Effective noise-reduction system helps users make identifications in less-than-ideal environments
  • Complete species accounts with multiple photos for all plumage types (some with 3-D models)
  • Comprehensive spectrograms (voiceprints of songs)

Technical Specifications:

  • Requires iOS 10 or later. Compatible with all iPhones after iPhone 6 including 7, 8, X and iPad, iPad Mini, and iPod Touch.
  • Requires Android 5.0 and above. Compatible with most common Android phones and tablets.

 

Princeton University Press and Cornell Lab of Ornithology to Partner

Princeton University Press is proud to announce a new publishing partnership with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a world leader in the study, appreciation, and conservation of birds.

Starting with the Autumn 2019 season, Princeton University Press and the Cornell Lab will publish diverse books and other products uniquely designed for everyone from experienced and amateur birders to the environmentally conscious and generally “bird curious.” The partnership will officially launch with the release of two interactive, regional bird-a-day 2020 calendars, and a comprehensive, beautifully illustrated birder’s life list and journal. Cornell Lab of Ornithology books for children will continue to be published by the Cornell Lab Publishing Group, an imprint of WunderMill children’s books.

“We are delighted to be working with Cornell Lab,” says Robert Kirk, Princeton University Press Executive Editor and Publisher of Field Guides and Natural History. “The Lab leads the world in bird-related citizen-science initiatives and is home to an impressive array of experts in many fields. We look forward to harnessing the individual and collective knowledge within the Lab to create innovative books and products that will appeal to birders everywhere.”

John Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says, “The Lab is looking forward to this new publishing partnership to engage ever-growing audiences in learning about and protecting birds and nature.”

The BirdGenie™ App is Now Available to Download

Princeton University Press is pleased to announce that the BirdGenie™ app is now available for download in the iTunes and Android App Store*. This breakthrough app helps anyone with an Apple® or Android® smartphone or tablet accurately identify birds —all with the tap of a button! The app’s highly developed sound identification ability and expert matching system enable bird enthusiasts to achieve an accuracy unheard of in the birding field. It’s perfect for anyone who wants to learn more about the birds around them.

BirdGenie™ includes up to two hundred vocalization types for one hundred species: literally all of the birds likely to be encountered in a backyard or local park, or on a hike, in North America at any time of the year. Beyond specifying a bird species, BirdGenie™ provides sample songs and spectrograms to compare with your own recording and to guarantee a confident match. The app also includes pictures of all plumages, information about habitat and behavior, and links to further reading. It even has 3-D models for some of the species so you can match different views of a bird. You can share your recordings, photos, and matches with friends and other users, and if you’re so inclined, you can anonymously share recordings to a scientific database to help researchers learn about birdsong variations. No internet connection is required for anything but sharing, making the program accessible everywhere.

You can also sign up for email updates from BirdGenie™ on the Princeton University Press website.

Learn more about BirdGenie™, and our other birding titles, by following Princeton Nature on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

*Technical Specifications:

  • Requires iOS 10 or later. Compatible with all iPhones after iPhone 6 including 7,8,X and iPad, iPad Mini, and iPod Touch.
  • Requires Android 5.0 and above. Compatible with most common Android phones and tablets.

BirdGenie™ is a trademark of Princeton University Press.

Bird Fact Friday: Visual Communication for Birds

Adapted from page 70 of Bird Brain:

It can’t have escaped your attention that many birds are wonderfully colored. A trip to Papua New Guinea would allow you to experience the greatest range of multicolored plumage in the animal kingdom in the form of birds of paradise. But why such vivid colors when they also announce a bird’s presence to predators?

A brightly colored male manakin dances for a prospective partner. He will have practiced this dance for years before ever performing it for a female. Despite all his best efforts, if he doesn’t achieve the standard the female requires, she’ll reject his advances and go looking elsewhere.

The simple answer is advertising, not to predators but to potential partners—visual display as a method for attracting the best mate. From a male-dominated human perspective, it may seem somewhat surprising that male birds have the brightest feathers, not to mention the most beautiful voices. But in the avian world it is definitely the males who are the showoffs, and the females who are the drab wallflowers standing in the background. However, because males are trying to attract the females, the latter have all the power, as they get to choose or reject any male that puts himself forward. Moreover, unlike human sexual politics, they don’t need to give a reason!

Other male birds do not develop the natural fashion show of the birds of paradise or some tropical pheasants. Birds such as peacocks produce exaggerated body ornaments with a function that is similar to human tattoos or piercings. In some instances, these extremely long tails or head furniture can make it difficult to fly, even impossible in the case of peacocks with their elaborate and beautiful tails. However, some birds do not develop their bodies in order to show off; rather the way they act is what gets the girls. Manakins, for example, take over seven years to learn to dance in coordinated teams, using lots of different dance styles, but only the dance master, not his apprentices, eventually gets to mate. His trainees only mate once their boss has retired and they start to work with their own dance troupes. Other birds, such as sage or black grouse, dance in a so-called lek, which is an arena in which many males can strut their stuff in front of interested females. Black grouse will bop their wattles, while making short runs, with the movement making a resonating sound. The females choose the male with the most impressive sound and motion combo.

One of the problems with being brightly colored or using dance moves as forms of sexual advertisement is that the recipient of your message has to be able to see you. Unfortunately, so can most predators. So why do it? Because their ability to survive despite the danger may be a reflection of good genes and health and is used as a yardstick by which females can assess their quality as mates. A good dancer is also likely to be a good dancer because his father was a good dancer, or because he is in good health. Some traits, such as long or large tails, could be perceived as handicaps, physically preventing those birds from evading predators. Yet females assess these traits positively, figuring that the guy with the large tail that survives long enough to father offspring should have excellent genes to be passed on to his offspring.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – What Do Bird Brains Do?

Adapted from pages 20-21 of Bird Brain:

Brains are a means of interacting with the world, receiving information from different senses— sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste—which is then interpreted by being compared with stored representations of information, either held in memory, such as when recognizing a familiar face, or learned through repeated experiences, such as knowing how to ride a bicycle. Brains make decisions about how to react to information, ignoring most of what is received, only attending to that which is (biologically) relevant. Decisions are made in the context in which information is currently experienced, as well as based on previous experiences, on current motivational or emotional states, and on social context. Once a decision has been made, an action plan is initiated leading to a specific behavior.

For birds, this decision may be how to react to a vocalization. If this is an alarm call (presented by a reliable, nearby source), then the appropriate response is to move quickly in the opposite direction to the call, namely away from a predator. If a potential mate produces the call, inviting sexual behavior, then an appropriate response would be to move closer to the source of the call. In either case, the brain interprets the content of the information (good or bad) and directs the body to act appropriately (approach or retreat). 

Birds often make decisions at much quicker speeds than mammals because of the environments they occupy and the vagaries of their lives, oft en living at high speed in flight. By contrast, a typical mammal, such as a rat, scurries around its environment but is dependent on smell not sight. Rats don’t travel quickly and don’t need to make rapid decisions. Monkeys make faster decisions as they travel rapidly through a more crowded environment, oft en swinging through the trees or being chased by a predator. Primates rely predominantly on sight and sound, both rapid routes for communicating information. Yet, primates do not have to process information as rapidly as a typical flying bird living in a complex three-dimensional world, flooded with color, and sources of danger and information. Birds seem to make these decisions with ease, yet the questions remain: how do they do it and what parts of their brains are used to process this information? Is there something about how the avian brain is wired up that helps birds process information more rapidly than other creatures?

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday: New Thinking on the Avian Brain

Adapted from pages 17 of Bird Brain:

The 1990s saw a flurry of interesting studies on avian behaviors thought to be uniquely human or only seen in great apes. Gavin Hunt found that New Caledonian crows made two different types of tools—Pandanus leaf and hook stick—that were used for different tasks. Irene Pepperberg revealed previously unheard-of linguistic abilities in a language-trained African grey parrot called Alex. Nicky Clayton and Tony Dickinson developed a method based on caching to discover that Western scrub jays thought about specific past events, so-called episodic-like memory.

In parallel to the exciting findings in avian cognition were findings from avian neuroscience. Bird brains were found to do things not seen in mammalian brains that could explain how birds could achieve identifiable cognitive feats with brains much smaller than mammals. Bird brains could support multitasking, with one hemisphere controlling one behavior (such as looking out for predators) while the other hemisphere controlled a different behavior simultaneously (such as looking for food). Adult brains could produce new neurons (neurogenesis)—either seasonally, as in the case of the hippocampus or song control system, or when needed, such as remembering caching events.

Edinger’s earlier ideas on the avian brain were questioned by studies on neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, evolution, and development with the result that in 2004 a complete change was made to the naming of the parts of the avian brain, reflecting a new understanding of how it had evolved. No longer was the avian forebrain seen as consisting of the striatum; rather the forebrain evolved from a pallium shared with ancestral reptilian and mammalian cousins. These new findings placed the new study of avian cognition on a strong foundation—so much so that more recent findings suggest the term “birdbrain” should now be used as a compliment not an insult!

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday: The Evolution of Avian Intelligence

Adapted from pages 14-15 of Bird Brain:

Despite there being almost 10,000 species of birds, only a few have yet to be studied for their cognitive abilities. Some, based on their lifestyles and relative brain size, such as this woodpecker (left), hornbill, and falcon (right), are likely to also demonstrate smart behavior in intelligence tests.

The species lived in splendid isolation on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean until contact with European sailors in the seventeenth century led to its extinction in just a few decades. Although the relatives of dodos (pigeons and doves) are not thought of as the smartest of birds, can we put the dodo’s demise down to its own stupidity? Certainly, having no natural predators and not having had much contact with humans before the seventeenth century, they had little or no reason to fear us. If dodos had had the capacity for rapid learning, perhaps they might have adapted quickly and learned to escape their human hunters, but they were up against the most efficient and effective killer the planet has ever seen. Given the dodo’s clumsy body design—large and flightless—and that it had nowhere to run, it’s clear that dodos were in the wrong place at the wrong time, though being stupid didn’t help! 

More than 50 percent of birds are members of the songbird family or passerines. In fact, most of the birds we encounter every day in our gardens and parks are passerines, including sparrows, thrushes, finches, titmice, robins, blackbirds, and crows. Although not all members of this family are melodious singers, as anyone who has experienced the loud cawing of a crow will testify, all learn vocalizations specific to their species and, indeed, have evolved a special brain circuit to do so. This ability, rare in the animal kingdom, shares properties with human language which will be examined in Chapter 3.

Although birds have been studied with respect to the structure and function of their brains, their learning, and cognition for over a century, very little is known about the cognitive abilities of more than a tiny proportion of species. Most species are not kept in laboratories and thus are unavailable for experimental study, so our best ideas about their intelligence are only guesses based on their relative brain size (in comparison to their body size; see Chapter 1), their diet, social system, habitat, and life history (how long the species lives and how long the young take to develop to independence). These clues help build a picture of what these species may need their brains for—finding food, relating to others, building a home—but without being able to run experiments the picture can only be a sketch. Nonetheless, this technique is still useful for making predictions as to how intelligence may have evolved, specifically in those species we would expect to be the intellectual heavyweights. Three groups of birds— woodpeckers, hornbills, and falcons—possess some or all of the traits displayed by species known to be smart (The Clever Club; Chapter 1) but have yet to be tested. All three groups are outside the passerines but are closely related, so any cognitive skills they may have are likely to have evolved independently (that is, not from a common ancestor).

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday: What is intelligence?

Adapted from page 12 of Bird Brain:

What do we mean when we say that an animal is intelligent? Scientists mean something specific by intelligence, especially in creatures without language: the ability to flexibly solve novel problems using cognition rather than mere learning and instinct.

Intelligence in action is the application of cognition outside of the context in which it evolved. An animal may have evolved a specific skill that enables it to deal with a particular ecological problem, such as predicting the behavior of group members or distinguishing large from small quantities, but it cannot use these same skills to address different problems for which the skills did not evolve. However, the flexibility to be able to transfer those skills is probably what distinguishes intelligent from cognitive species.

Merlina is one of the ravens at the Tower of London. She has formed a strong bond with Chris Skaife, the Raven master, but also likes carrying around sticks and even plays dead to the delight of the crowds who come to see her antics. Photo credit: Chris Skaife

Cognition refers to the processing, storage, and retention of information across different contexts. In the wild, birds use cognition to process information, enabling them to survive but not necessarily to solve problems. A pigeon that distinguishes foods from non-foods does not need to stretch its mental muscles as much as a crow that creates and modifies a tool to reach a grub hidden inside a tree trunk, fashioning the tool to the correct length in order to reach the treat. Both are challenges related to procuring food, but one requires a wider range of skills than the other.

One important consideration is that intelligence is not a mechanism. A specific behavior can be perceived as intelligent based on its outcome—such as the solving of a problem—but that does not mean that this solution is achieved using similar processes to those used by a human. The animal may employ sophisticated cognitive processes—perhaps using imagination (thinking about objects, events, and actions not currently available to perception), or forward planning (prospection), or requiring an understanding of how events (actions) are related to their consequences (causal reasoning)— and these cognitive acts may be variously deployed in different contexts. But they may also be the result of trial-and-error learning (learning the best course of action after repeated experiences of the same event) or simpler cognitive processes for which that particular species has evolved a solution. The specific mechanisms underlying animal behavior are frequently the object of controversy and debate, especially in creatures more distantly related to us. This book attempts to present different perspectives on what may underlie seemingly intelligent bird behavior: from instinct, learning, and cognition to imagination, forethought, and insight.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday: A Basic Approach to Gull ID

Adapted from page 23-24 of Gulls Simplified:

For all their inherent challenges, gulls do present students of birds with ID advantages.

Most gulls are readily distinguishable as gulls, members of the family Laridae, simplifying the identification process by eliminating the need to initially assign an unidentified bird to a broader grouping or family.

Gulls are mostly large enough to note key differentiating traits relating to bill and head shape, eye color, leg color, and overall plumage characteristics, such as the color of the bird’s upper back (silver gray vs. charcoal gray). In addition, gulls typically stay in the open, where they are easily viewed. Insofar as they are often found in places people frequent, gulls are mostly habituated to us and allow prolonged scrutiny and close approach.

Gulls are typically found in open spaces, such as this beachfront in Daytona Beach, Florida (January), and often in areas people frequent on a regular basis. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson.

Gulls are gregarious, often gathering in mixed-species flocks that facilitate direct comparison between known species and less familiar ones—a boon to identification and one that supports a dynamic comparative ID approach. Knowing the identity of a gull standing next to a mystery gull presents observers with a point of reference for size, shape (slender vs. bulky), bill shape, back color (silver gray vs. charcoal gray vs. black), and body shape (plump breasted vs. slender bodied).

While gulls do present an array of plumages typically arranged by successive molts (replacement of feathers), we find that these plumages—especially among the larger, white-headed gulls—may be combined into three broad, manageable age classes. These age classes correspond to the terms that birders commonly use to organize other bird groups, most notably raptors, according to plumage. These age designations are immature, subadult, and adult (breeding and nonbreeding).

Further clarification can then be added to these basic age groups, such as immature/juvenile, immature/1st or 2nd winter, or advanced or retarded immature or subadult. The term “advanced” refers to a plumage state at a particular age that is more complete than usual for a species, and the term “retarded” means that the plumage is less complete than usual at a particular age.

Most smaller to medium-sized gulls take only two years to reach full or mostly adult plumage, and these species typically replace their juvenile upper back feathers in early fall with adultlike grayish feathers. Larger gulls typically take three to four years to achieve full adult plumage, and most typically
acquire various amounts of adultlike upperpart feathers in their second or third year. 

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull