This article was previously published in Bird Breeder magazine and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
A Look at Birds' Brains
by Laurella Desborough
Considering the Brains of Birds
Do you ever think about the phrase, "bird brain?" When we look at birds, from the small finches to the large macaws, we are not looking at a very large brain case (or skull). In the past, man has viewed the avian species as not having much in the way of brains. However, the intelligence of birds has amazed us, especially since the research work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg with Alex the African grey that talks and makes sense out of what he says. Those of us who keep parrots are often surprised when parrots speak to us and definitely seem to be communicating intelligently with the words they are using. Often the situation is such that we are sure they know exactly what they are saying.
When we consider the size of the brain, we might wonder how much it can possibly contain because it is so small. Now that we humans live in the age of the computer and are familiar with microchips, we should no longer be astounded by the amount of information held in a bird's brain, whatever the size. Apparently, size is only one factor to consider.
On Page 30 of the January, 1998 issue of the journal, Scientific American, a brief article appears entitled "Bird Brains." The article indicates that some birds' brains within the same species are larger than other birds' brains. Doctoral student Tony Tramontin at the University of Washington, working in collaboration with psychology and zoology professors, studied the growth of brain regions related to singing in white-crowned sparrows. He found that social cues controlled the development of these brain regions. Previously, it was thought that the lengthening days and hormonal changes brought about changes in these birds' brains. But Tramontin found that in male birds living with females, the brain regions grew 15 to 20 percent larger than they did in male birds living alone or with other males. It is the first observation of socially induced changes in the avian forebrain.
Certainly this gives us food for thought about the importance of the early same-species socialization of our parrots, and especially of our finches and softbills. It is often disturbing to bird breeders to place domestically bred birds together in hopes of having a breeding pair only to discover that the male bird has no interest in a female of his species or, even worse, is openly hostile to her. A little research on the history of these problem birds often reveals that there was little or no early same-species socialization experienced by the male.
The problem seems less obvious in female parrots, but that may only appear to be the case. In psittacine species where precopulatory behavior includes solicitation by the female as a part of process, some females may not exhibit this behavior. Then the normal male bird seeking to mate with the female may abandon the pairing activity or attack the female. There is still much to be learned about exotic species behavior, including understanding the importance of cues exhibited by males and females in the mating process and doing a lot more observing of our birds.
A remarkable book has been written entitled, "The Minds of Birds." The author, Alexander F. Skutch, is an ornithologist who has studied birds for more than 60 years. He has written an astonishing book derived from his study of birds in the tropics and in the temperate zone. In 17 chapters, he covers topics including Recognition of Individuals, Memory and Anticipation, Social Life, Emotions, Play, Counting and Timing, Tool Using, Aesthetic Sense, Dissimulation, Mental Conflicts, Intelligent Birds, Apparently Stupid Behavior, Freedom and Altruism, The Brain and Senses, Homing and Migration, and The Mind of a Parrot. He starts by discussing the commonly held belief that birds are unintelligent. By the time you are well into this book, you will most probably change your mind about the minds of birds!
Some of the indications that birds are intelligent include the fact that many bird species in the wild have the ability to recognize members of their own species as individuals and, amazingly, also to recognize familiar humans even after a long absence. (Keep in mind, these are birds in the wild, not pets.) These wild birds have good memories and give evidence of thinking ahead to solve problems. Skutch indicates that of all species, only humans take more elaborate care of their offspring than most birds do. Few animals of any kind live in the closely united family groups like those of cooperatively breeding birds. Wild birds engage in very diverse play activities and give evidence of enjoyment. Some birds are known to use tools and the birds create aesthetically pleasing constructions. The journeys of migrant species over thousands of miles gives evidence of memory and navigational skills.
This book is full of extremely interesting material as the following quote shows: "To learn how birds recognize people, observers sometimes try to deceive them by unfamiliar attire. The German ornithologist Oskar Heinroth had a pheasant who courted him and fought his wife as a rival. When the couple exchanged clothes, the bird started to attack Herr Heinroth in his wife's dress, stopped, scrutinized their faces, then flew at Frau Heinroth in trousers. When Katarina Heinroth and her sister exchanged garments, the pheasant still distinguished his 'enemy.' " There is so much wonderful information about avian species that I consider this book to be one of the most valuable in my library. Copyrighted in 1996, The Minds of Birds is available through the Trade Books Department at Texas A & M University for $19.95 plus $3 shipping and handing. (Texas residents pay sales tax.) For more information, call (409) 845-8681, fax (409) 862-7417 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. It is available in cloth (ISBN 0-89096-671-0) or paperback (ISBN 0-89096-759-8).