Bird Brains

by Barbara Walvoord

From Lathrop Lamp Post, April 27, 2017

My daughter and grandchildren, for Christmas, gave me a book called The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman.

Ackerman’s thesis is that “the misguided use of ‘bird brain’ as a slur has finally come home to roost.”   Scientific evidence shows that birds exhibit “toolmaking, culture, reasoning, the ability to remember the past and think about the future, to adopt another’s perspective, to learn from one another.”  In short, “many of our cherished forms of intellect–whether in whole or parts–appear to have evolved in birds quite separately and artfully right alongside our own.” (p. 11)

Like humans, birds have brains that are large in relation to their body size.  Bird brains and human brains share many similarities in directing social behaviors, in brain activity during sleep, and in learning.  When scientists, in 2014, sequenced the genomes of 48 birds, they found “startlingly similar gene activity in the brains of humans learning to speak and birds learning to sing.” (p. 12)

Bird brains are capable of feats impossible for humans. “What kind of intelligence allows a bird to anticipate the arrival of a distant storm? Or find its way to a place it has never been before, though it may be thousands of miles away?  Or precisely imitate the complex songs of hundreds of other species?  Or hide tens of thousands of seeds over hundreds of square miles and remember where it put them six months later?” (p. 10)  That last is especially amazing to a human who can’t remember where she put the keys she had in her hand five minutes ago–and this was when I was young.

One of the smartest things our birds (and our humans) do is choose to live at Lathrop. And now that spring is here, more birds are arriving all the time.  96% of birds need insects to raise their young, and 90% of insects eat only native plants. So when we humans are smart enough to nurture our native plants and to control invasive plants that crowd out the natives, then we are using our brains for our birds. And in return, our birds reward us.  Bird songs have been shown scientifically to improve human mood and alertness (“Happy Trails,” NY Times Book Review 3/5/17) .  But beyond science, we all know that, in some inestimable way, our Lathrop birds lift our hearts

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