• Emily Costello

Bird Brain

The term ‘bird brain’ is so often used as an insult of one’s intelligence – but perhaps this should not be the case? Recent research is beginning to shine a light on the incredible behaviours that birds display.

During my three years of studying (what seemed to me) the entire animal kingdom, I was always drawn to the biology of birds – in particular, their underrated intelligence.

So, what does cognition mean exactly? By definition, it encompasses all processes that go on inside your brain: thinking, remembering, knowing, linking bits of information together and learning. These allow you to make memories and develop language and plan for the future… You do all these complex things without thinking of course, but did you know that birds may be just as capable!

Introducing the Californian Scrub Jay – a beautiful blue jay, native to Western North America and part of the Corvid family (especially known for intelligence).

These birds are not just a pretty face. Jays are clever birds and foragers. They will store food to get them through winter months. It’s because of this behaviour of storing food that got people interested. They must have a good memory if they remember where they buried their food - but how much can they remember?

In a simple experiment, Jays were given two types of food to store:

1) Wax worms (a favourite food but will rot quickly)

2) Peanuts (will last a long time)

The birds were left to hide their food and then returned later on to recover what they had buried. All birds were able to remember exactly where they had hidden food items. Great, so they have a good memory – but that is just the start..

When returned within a few weeks, the birds would recover worms and nuts. However, if left for longer periods of time, the birds would only retrieve the nuts. This shows that not only do they remember where they hid food, but also what they hid there.

This is called episodic memory! Recalling an event (what, where and when), something that was previously considered a trait unique to humans.

So in terms of how they recall events and what they can recall, these birds are rivalling human ability. And if that's not enough to make you think 'hmm pretty damn smart', here's some more:

- They are also aware of the perishability of the items buried (how long they will last in certain conditions)

- If they notice they are being watched whilst hiding food, they will re-bury food elsewhere (showing they can perceive what others can see)

- Caching food shows the ability to plan for the future – a trait that not long ago was considered uniquely human.

So, next time you call someone a bird brain – you may as well be complementing their memory!

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