January 29, 2023

Bird Brains in a New Light


Bird Brains in a New Light

Written by Bob Sundstrom

This is BirdNote.

[Blue Jay calls, ML 13448, 1:01-1:05]

It’s time to retire the insult “bird brain”. Many birds — especially jays, crows, and parrots — are remarkably clever, capable of problem-solving and even using simple tools. And in recent years, we’ve gained a better understanding of how they can be so smart. 

[American Crow calls, ML 105346, 0:07-0:10]

[American Crow (ambient only) ML 100700]

In humans and other mammals, intelligence is seated in the neocortex, the large, rounded mass of neurons that gives our brains their distinctive shape. The neocortex is organized in vertical columns and horizontal layers of neurons. Birds lack a neocortex; their forebrains were thought to be entirely organized into simple clusters of neurons. 

But when scientists took a closer look at a structure in birds’ brains called the dorsal ventricular ridge, they found similarities to the neocortex at the cellular level. Specialized microscopes revealed that the ridge has neurons in layers and columns — different circuitry from the rest of a bird’s brain and similar to the structures in the neocortex. 

[American Crow calls, ML 166505971, 1:37-1:40]

This physical basis for intelligence helps us understand birds and their behaviors, and it’s a good reason to stop using “bird brain” as a put-down.

[American Crow calls, ML 105346, 0:07-0:10]

For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein.


Senior Producer: John Kessler
Production Manager: Allison Wilson
Producer: Mark Bramhill
Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone
Digital Producer: Conor Gearin
Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Blue Jay ML 13448 recorded by R. Little, American Crow ML 105346 recorded by G. Keller, and American Crow ML 100700 and ML 166505971 recorded by W. Hershberger.
BirdNote’s theme was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
© 2021 BirdNote      November 2021      Narrator: Michael Stein

ID# brain-01-2021-11-09   brain-01


Published at Tue, 09 Nov 2021 03:00:00 -0500

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