February 3, 2005 [LINK]

Birds' brains

An article in Tuesday's Washington Post explains why George ought to get more respect for his intellectual abilities than most people give him. (!) Research scientists have recently discovered that the brains of birds, though small in absolute terms, are actually more complex than was once thought, so they have begun to revamp the system used to describe the various parts of the avian brain.

The new system, which draws upon many of the words used to describe the human brain and has broad support among scientists, acknowledges the now overwhelming evidence that avian and mammalian brains are remarkably similar -- a fact that explains why many kinds of bird are not just twitchily resourceful but able to design and manufacture tools, solve mathematical problems and, in many cases, use language in ways that even chimpanzees and other primates cannot.

In particular, it reflects a new recognition that the bulk of a bird's brain is not, as scientists once thought, mere "basal ganglia" -- the part of the brain that simply coordinates instincts. Rather, fully 75 percent of a bird's brain is an intricately wired mass that processes information in much the same way as the vaunted human cerebral cortex.

Any pet bird owner or wild bird watcher would probably not be surprised at all by this news. Our canaries, Princess and George, certainly seem to have advanced cognitive abilities, as well as complex social behavior patterns and emotional states. Frankly, I've always had the impression that pigeons and doves had below-average smarts, but the article suggests otherwise. On the very same day, coincidentally, our copy of Wild Bird magazine arrived, and it had an article on the same subject.

More snow, fewer birds

The white stuff was coming down pretty heavy for several hours today, but most of it had melted away. A Carolina wren belted out a LOUD song on our back patio, making George rather anxious, but otherwise there have been no signs of courtship behavior in the avian world. In a normal (mild) winter, we would expect to see crocuses by now. Grumble... Aside from the regular Cardinals, Titmice, Juncos, etc., there's not been much birding activity to report. I saw several Green-winged teals, Coots, and (probably) some Ring-necked ducks on Bell's Lane last week, and spotted a flock of 15 or so Meadowlarks in a field. Yesterday Jacqueline and I saw a Pileated woodpecker for the first time since October 24. Still no Yellow-rumped warblers since last November 11; they have been uncommonly scarce this winter.