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Bird Brain

Following yesterday's entry on insect consciousness, we now turn to our avian friends. The New York Times reports on an emerging (and redressive) scientific consensus that birds are highly intelligent.


Birdbrain has long been a colloquial term of ridicule. The common notion is that birds' brains are simple, or so scientists thought and taught for many years. But that notion has increasingly been called into question as crows and parrots, among other birds, have shown what appears to be behavior as intelligent as that of chimpanzees....

Today, in the journal Nature Neuroscience Reviews, an international group of avian experts is issuing what amounts to a manifesto. Nearly everything written in anatomy textbooks about the brains of birds is wrong, they say. The avian brain is as complex, flexible and inventive as any mammalian brain, they argue, and it is time to adopt a more accurate nomenclature that reflects a new understanding of the anatomies of bird and mammal brains....

At a university campus in Japan, carrion crows line up patiently at the curb waiting for a traffic light to turn red. When cars stop, they hop into the crosswalk, place walnuts from nearby trees onto the road and hop back to the curb. After the light changes and cars run over the nuts, the crows wait until it is safe and hop back out for the food....

Like mammals, some birds are naturally smarter than others, Dr. Jarvis said. But given their range of behaviors, birds are extraordinarily flexible in their intelligence quotients. "They're right up there with hominids," he said.

However, considering the consequences of our discovery, birds may have preferred we remained in the dark about their smarts:

"There are still puzzles to be solved," said Dr. Peter Marler, a leading authority on bird behavior at the University of California, Davis, who is not part of the consortium. But the realization that one can study mammal brains by using bird brains, he said, "is a revolution."

"I think that birds are going to replace the white rat as the favored subject for studying functional neuroanatomy," he added.

February 3, 2005 | Science | Permalink



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