Posts Tagged ‘special kinds of intelligence’

The Genius of Birds

October 6, 2019

“The Genius of Birds” is a book by Jennifer Ackerman. There will be many posts based on this book. Readers may well ask why is the Healthymemory Blog devoting so many posts to this topic The answer is learning new topics helps build a healthymemory and there are many useful concepts to be learned. Unfortunately, most of what has been learned about birds is relatively new, and the rest has been buried in academic tomes. And, unfortunately, birds have a bad press and many misconceptions to overcome, bird brain being the first. This slur came from the belief that birds had brains so diminutive they had to be devoted only to instinctual behavior. Ms. Ackerman notes, “the avian brain had no cortex like ours, where all the “smart” stuff happens.” We thought that birds had minimal noggins for good reason: to allow for airborne ways; to defy gravity, to hover, arabesque, dive, soar for days on end, migrate thousands of miles, and maneuver in tight spaces.

Research, however, has taught us otherwise, Bird brains are very different from our own. This is not surprising as humans and birds have been evolving independently for a very long time, since our last common ancestor more than 300 million years ago. However, some birds have relatively large brains for their size, as do we. And when it comes to brainpower, size seems to matter less than the number of neurons, where they’re located, and how they’re connected. And some bird brains pack very high numbers of neurons where it counts, with densities akin to those found in primates, and links and connections similar to ours. As will be seen in subsequent posts, certain birds have sophisticated cognitive abilities.

Ms. Ackerman writes, “In judging the overall intelligence of animals, scientists may look at how successful they are at surviving and reproducing in many different environments. By this measure, birds trump nearly all vertebrates, including fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. They live in every part of the globe, from the equator to the poles, from the lowest deserts to the highest peaks, in virtually every habitat, on land, sea, and in bodies of freshwater.

As a class, birds have been around more than 100 million years. They are one of nature’s great success stories, inventing new strategies for survival, their own distinctive brands of ingenuity that, in some respects at least, seem to far outpace our own.”

Birds possess ways of knowing that are hard to understand, which we can’t easily dismiss as merely instinctual or hardwired. Ms. Ackerman writes, “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 to 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 to put them six months later?