Bird Brained

You know you can’t fly. But they may have you beat on memory, too. /

Who can understand the nature of the fowls of the air? How some have with them a voice of melody; and others have their wings enriched with all manner of painting; and others soaring on high, stay motionless in the midst of the sky, as the hawk. ... But if thou canst not read the mystery of birds when soaring on high, how wouldst thou read the Maker of all things?

—Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 313 AD)

When it comes to comparing the abilities of birds and people, it’s easy to accept there are some ways in which our fellow creatures outperform us. We cannot fly, for one thing, and we are not as good as birds are at travelling accurately for a long time in a particular direction, while birds routinely migrate vast distances without any kind of help. We find it easy enough to appreciate that birds are superior in the sensory department: they see more crisply, have more of an ultraviolet component to their vision, and some, such as owls, also have extraordinary powers of hearing. As it happens, they also have a magnetic sensitivity that we probably lack. Birds are endowed with many physical gifts.

However, when you sit down to have coffee in the kitchen and idly watch the comings and goings of the birds at your feeders, would you be surprised to know that some of your garden companions might actually out-perform you in a more cerebral function? A variety of studies on the cognitive abilities of tits and chickadees suggest that this is indeed the case. It seems that some bird table residents have, compared to us, a superior spatial memory.

Species such as black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are mainly vegetarian in the winter, subsisting primarily on seeds and nuts. There are two characteristics of these ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 36 / November 26, 2015
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 36: What smells so good, the other First Thanksgiving, and birds that gather to remember. /

  2. Oh, How He Smells Us

    Sniff and see that the Lord is good. /

  3. The First Thanksgiving We Don’t Remember

    Bad fortune, divine chastisement, and mercy after the Pilgrims feasted with the Wampanoag. /

  4. Living Things

    “Our poems / Are like the wart-hogs” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 36: Links to amazing stuff.

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