Bird brains

The Boston Globe has a nice article about the cognitive abilities of birds, by Seed Magazine editor-at-large Jonah Lehrer.

There’s a remarkable similarity between a passage from Jonah’s article and something I wrote about the same subject. On page 2 of his article, Jonah writes:

For most of the 20th century, “bird brain” has been used as an insult. Noting the stark structural differences between human and bird brains, anatomists concluded that birds are essentially flying reptiles. Their minds were too tiny for thought. But in recent years, scientists have discovered that the bird brain doesn’t deserve its reputation. 

The first paragraph of my post on avian intelligence, which I published on my old blog in February, reads:

…the term “bird brain” is often used in reference to intellectually challenged individuals. This is, of course, based on the notion that birds are dim-witted creatures whose behaviour is largely based on instinct. The main assumption is that a six-layered neocortex, like that of humans, is a prerequisite for anything that might be classed as intelligent, and even ornithologists have generally believed that, because they have a “smooth” brain, birds aren’t too clever. However, it has in recent years become clear that we have grossly underestimated the cognitive abilities of birds. Some of the behaviours observed in birds are just as complex, if not more so, than those seen in non-human primates – and birdbrain” no longer seems so much of an insult.


4 thoughts on “Bird brains

  1. Anatomists may have thought birds were stupid, but ethologists always knew otherwise; for example, read Konrad Lorenz’s popular work King Solomon’s Ring from 1952. It’s full of beautiful anecdotes about his observations of the sophisticated behavior of geese, rooks, parrots and jackdaws.

  2. Mo’s article was much more interesting, even if the two touched on a similar phrase. I’m not totally sold on the whole social intelligence thing Leher emphasizes in his article. I think intelligence arises from several factors and I think we have been underestimating animal intelligence in general. There have been some interesting studies on octopi and other marine life that hint at cognitive abilities beyond what we have assumed.
    Mo’s article in particular changed the way I look at my forested backyard. There are minds in those trees. Life thinks, even if it is mostly about “Can I eat that?”

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