How bird brains are shaking up science

21 09 2007

Jonah Lehrer in the Boston Globe

THE NEW CALEDONIAN crow is surprisingly smart about its food. Its favorite insects live in tiny crevices that are too narrow for its beak. So the crow takes a barbed leaf and, using its beak and claws, fashions a primitive hook. It then lowers the hook down into the cracks, almost like a man fishing, and draws up a rich meal. Some scientists even suggest that crows are more sophisticated tool builders than chimps, since they can transmit their knowledge on to successive generations and improve the tools over time. These birds have a culture.

The world lost its most famous bird brain this month: Alex, an African gray parrot who lived in a Brandeis laboratory and possessed a vocabulary of nearly 150 words. Yet as remarkable as Alex was – he could identify colors and shapes – he was not alone. The songs of starlings display a sophisticated grammar once thought the sole domain of human thinking. A nutcracker can remember the precise location of hundreds of different food storage spots. And crows in Japan have learned how to get people to crack walnuts for them: They drop them near busy intersections, then retrieve the smashed nuts when the traffic light turns red.

These feats are part of a growing recognition of the genius of birds. Scientists are now studying various birds to explore everything from spatial memory to the grammatical structure of human language. This research is helping to reveal the secrets of the human brain. But it is also overturning the conventional evolutionary story of intelligence, in which all paths lead to the creation of the human cortex. The tree of life, scientists are discovering, has numerous branches of brilliance.

More here.

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