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.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Bird Fact Friday – What Do Bird Brains Do?Bird Fact Friday: The Evolution of Avian Intelligence >>