Bird Brains Are Smarter Than We Think

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Birds

Bird Brains Are Smarter Than We Think

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Some birds exhibit awareness similar to the awareness generated by the human brain.

The idea that birds are intelligent – far more so than most of us realised – is not simply a flight of fancy.

For most of us looking over on our gardens or across our picket fences, birds are these colourful and quite charming creatures who flit in and out of our sight, resting on a branch, pecking at an insect, or pooping gleefully on your car.

Yes, they are delightful examples of nature’s extravagance and beauty in full flight but no one who ever looked closely at a pigeon or a chicken ever imagined they were all that smart.

Birds
Michelle Reeves at Pexels

But that kind of generalisation may now be consigned to the sandbox of history. During 2020, that most unprecedented of years when we were assailed by the novel corona virus, as well as lockdowns, economic woes, and political shocks, two scientific reports revealed that we may have underestimated our fine feathered friends or, at least, some of them.

While it remains true that most birds have beady little eyes and their brains are in fact little bigger than a brazil nut, yet some birds exhibit signs of astounding mental capacities.

One of these reports suggests that the bird brain bears more than a passing resemblance to the human neocortex, which is also the part of our brains responsible for higher order functions such as sensory perception, cognition, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, and language. In short, it’s the place our intelligence springs from.

The other report released this year shows that crows are even more aware than researchers previously thought and that they may be capable of some conscious thought.

Birds
Pixabay at Pexels

In humans, the neocortex consists of horizontal layers laced with interconnected columns of nerve cells, which allow for complex thinking. But avian brains, in contrast, were believed to be arranged in simple clusters of nerve cells.

By using a technique called 3D polarized light imaging, scientists looked closely at the forebrain – the anterior part of the brain, including the cerebral hemispheres, the thalamus, and the hypothalamus – of both homing pigeons and owls and discovered that nerves there connect in both horizontal and vertical directions, much like the connections and layering found in human brains.

Another team of scientists probed this part of the brains of carrion crows—well-known for their intelligence—for clues that they are aware of not only of their surroundings but of their actions as well as consequences.

The researchers first trained laboratory-raised crows to turn their heads when they saw certain light sequences flashing on a computer.

Nerve activity in the crows’ brains between the moment the birds saw the signal and when they moved their heads was captured by a set of electrodes.

Even the feintest change in light activated this nerve activity, implying that it was not simply a response to stimulus but that it existed irrespective of whether the birds reacted.

The scientists concluded that the avian neural noise represents a form of perception—a psychological depiction of what the birds see.

Birds
Tina Nord at Pexels

This “sensory consciousness” is a simple form of the self-awareness that we humans experience. Its presence in both birds and mammals indicates to the investigators that some form of awareness may date back 320 million years, to the time when a common ancestor first wriggled out of the primordial slime.

So next time someone calls you a bird brain you can thank them for the compliment and explain that they may have one, too.

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