By Jim Poling Sr.
The next time someone calls you a bird brain, take it as a compliment. That’s become a cliché as scientists discover more evidence that birds are smarter than we believe.
Birds do have small brains, larger ones the size of a walnut, the smaller ones perhaps smaller than an unshelled peanut. In comparison, the brains of some monkeys are the size of a lemon.
Scientists have discovered, however, that size really doesn’t matter.
Bird brains are wired differently than those of other creatures. They have more cells packed into a smaller space and higher brain neuron counts than mammals or primates.
Neurons transmit information between different parts of the brain and between the brain and the nervous system.
One 2019 study showed that ravens process visual information faster than humans. In the study, ravens took only half as long as humans to glance at a collection of objects and pick one that they wanted.
I didn’t need an elaborate scientific study to tell me that. A few years back I left the contents of my pants pockets, including my car keys, on a table on the cottage deck. When I returned to the deck, I saw a raven flying off with something in its beak.
I haven’t seen those keys since.
The information about the 2019 study, plus much other research, is contained in a new book by nature author Jennifer Ackerman. It is titled The Bird Way and is a follow-up to The Genius of Birds, her 2016 book highlighting new discoveries about bird intelligence.
Ackerman writes that scientific studies, and her own observations of birds around the world, have provided a better understanding of birds and their behaviours – an understanding that is pushing aside our mistaken biases and assumptions.
For instance, many of us see some birds as aggressive creatures, fighting each other for territory and for food. In fact, birds can be extremely co-operative, raising the young of other birds, and working together in hunting insects and other small prey.
Ackerman writes that birds use their voices to resolve disputes, negotiate boundaries and spread word about sources of food and danger.
The Bird Way is packed with much interesting information about the ways and intelligence of birds. Some of it makes the reader smile.
Smiles fade, however, when Ackerman notes the ominous declines in bird populations.
One 2019 study found that over the past 25 years bird populations that depend on insects for food declined 13 percent in Europe and almost 30 percent in Denmark.
Scientists also reported last year that one in four birds in Canada and the U.S. have disappeared since 1970. That’s nearly three billion birds.
Back in 2014 the Audubon Society predicted that one half of North American birds likely will go extinct within the next 50 years. Audubon said that, despite their intelligence, birds cannot adapt to the rapid pace of environmental change created by humans.
Audubon published updated research in 2019 showing that 389 North American bird species are vulnerable to extinction because of climate change. It lists increasing climate-related hazards as debilitating heat waves, increased wildfires, heavy rains and rising sea levels.
Audubon is not alone in its dire predictions. BirdLife International reported in its State of the World’s Birds 2018 that 40 per cent of the planet’s 11,000 bird species are in decline. It said one in eight is threatened with global extinction.
Audubon has said that holding global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels would mean about 150 bird species would no longer be vulnerable to extinction. And, 76 of all vulnerable species would be better off than they are today.
It is easy to believe that the world’s human population never will make the sacrifices needed to reduce global warming. Easy when after nine months and 1.47 million deaths we can’t accept and make the sacrifices required to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.
But there is hope. Back in the 1960s, one woman and her book led to the banning of DDT, the most powerful and most damaging pesticide ever produced. Rachel Carson was considered a radical and her book, Silent Spring, was called inflammatory but her meticulous research and powerful writing convinced people and governments that DDT was a danger that must be eliminated.