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Birdbrain? No, Brainy Birds - 2002-02-18

Researchers have found that birds are remarkably good communicators and navigators and adept at tasks involving certain types of memory. In certain cases, their abilities seem to surpass those of people.

We tend to think that we, our ape cousins, and other large-brained mammals such as whales and dolphins are the only species capable of cognition, the ability to take in large amounts of information about the world around us and use it to survive. But scientists have told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that birds are capable of certain kinds of cognition.

For example, take Griffin, a parrot that lives in the laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Irene Pepperberg. Griffin has recently started combining objects into specific order. "The way children stack cups inside one another, [this bird] stacks bottle caps in appropriate order. That's what is the critical aspect of it," emphasizes Dr. Pepperberg. "He'll put the middle sized one in the biggest one and then put the little one inside the next to the smallest one. Anything he can combine, he will do this."

Griffin the parrot can also combine words in certain order, too. If he wants to eat nuts, he will say so, and be firm about it. "If you give him a banana at that point, he will say, 'Want more nut.' And you can give him toys and he will throw the toy at you," said Irene Pepperberg.

The ability to combine objects and words, called syntax, was once thought the exclusive domain of humans and other primates. Ms. Pepperberg does not think Griffin is necessarily using syntax when he arranges bottle caps or utters word combinations, but she does believe birds have the brain machinery to carry out rule governed behavior, the understanding that complex tasks must be done in a certain sequence.

Some birds also seem capable of a certain degree of logical reasoning, an ability thought to have evolved in social animals. University of Nebraska scientist Alan Kamil found that he could train a social species of jay to choose one object over another to obtain a reward, whereas he could not train a non-social species.

Birds' navigational ability is unsurpassed. They seem to have some sort of internal compass allowing them to recall numerous landmarks to navigate across continents year after year or to retrieve seeds they have stored.

Mr. Kamil's experiments with seed retrieval in a species called nutcrackers suggest that they use multiple landmarks like rocks and trees, most likely remembering a seed's direction in relation to each landmark and then finding it according to the intersection of imaginary lines from each. "Although two is the minimum number necessary to locate a position in space," he explained, "they use three or more landmarks because that increases their accuracy, particularly if there is error in their compass."

Bowling Green State University researcher Verner Bingman believes birds must be endowed with some special brain component for their superior navigation skills. He thought it might be the hippocampus, known to be involved in learning and remembering spatial information. But the bird hippocampus is essentially similar to those of rats, which do not have the same spatial abilities. What might this mean?

"If birds are indeed special in the context of space, then those brain specializations need to lie outside the hippocampus," said Dr. Bingman, who explains that if we knew how the bird's brain processes space, it may help us learn for our own purposes.

The researchers say bird species probably vary a lot in the cognitive abilities, depending on what they must do to survive. But the University of Nebraska's Alan Kamil says whatever abilities they have take away our feeling that we humans are unique.

"There's quite a bit of variation in brain size and structure, and there is quite a bit of variation in a variety of behavioral tests. But I have very little doubt that most birds are a lot smarter than most people give them credit for," said Prof. Kamil.