Archive for the ‘Bird brains’ Category


June 16, 2009


City of Mudville, California v. The Great-tailed Grackle

[June 16, 2009]

JUSTICE SOOTHER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The town of Mudville, California, allows its citizens to bring private law suits to stop public nuisances.  The municipal ordinance defines a public nuisance as “Anything which is . . . indecent or offensive to the senses.”  The nuisance must, “Affect at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons.”

Mildred Thoroughgood brought this lawsuit, demanding that the authorities of Mudville do something about the Great-tailed Grackles which live there.  The grackles, Ms. Thoroughgood claims, are “offensive to the senses” and must be eradicated.  A judge in Mudville agreed with her and ordered the birds extirpated.
grackle (2 of 3)
The birds appeal, asking this Court to reverse the judgment below and dismiss the case.

Great-tailed Grackles are large birds with, as the name implies, large tails.  They live mainly west of the Mississippi River of the United States and often dwell together in large flocks, not unlike humans.  Foraging for seeds and insects, they go about making their living in fields and towns throughout the American Southwest and Southern California.

But, according to Ms. Thoroughgood, they make many unpleasant sounds.  Indeed one authority writes, “Song a series of loud, unpleasant noises: mechanical rattles, sliding tinny whistles, harsh rustling sounds, and sharp hard notes.”  (Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, at 443)

No evidence to the contrary appearing, this Court accepts as fact that they make unpleasant sounds. We also note that even the renowned Cornell University refers to the poor birds as a “pest species.”

If that were all the evidence, we might be inclined to uphold the decision of the Mudville court that grackles are a pain and should be eliminated.  But that was not all the evidence.

grackle (3 of 3)
The grackle population appears to grow with the human population.  This makes Great-tailed Grackles, like pigeons, an inevitable by-product of the rapid growth of the American West.   Like people, grackles find irrigation and urbanization beneficial. The only way to get rid of them is to get rid of the people.

Grackles are good parents too.  Most of the parental duties, it is true, are left to the females but males fiercely defend their nestlings and fledglings.  Interestingly, more females survive the first year than males.  That may explain the transient nature of their pair bonds and the flamboyant mating behavior of the males.  Nobody knows for certain how long they live, but one banded male lived for twelve years.

Finally, we find the testimony at trial of The Fat Finch persuasive.  Those people have a female Great-tailed Grackle living in their yard which has lost a leg.  This one-legged female is successfully rearing offspring.  The fledglings don’t seem to care that she has only one leg and neither does she.  Such tenacity in the face of adversity should be rewarded, not punished.

One-legged Grackle

One-legged Grackle

The law of nuisance, as William Prosser once wrote, is an “impenetrable jungle.”  Nonetheless, we discern in this case application of that old legal maxim, “The law disregards grackles.”

Accordingly, we reverse the decision below and order the case dismissed.  Let the grackles go.

JUSTICE SCALITO, dissenting.

I hate nature.  I never go outside if I can avoid it.  I used to play tennis outdoors but found the unfiltered air disagreeable.  Moreover, I’ve never been west of the Mississippi and don’t intend to go.  Therefore, I am completely disinterested in the fate of Great-tailed Grackles.

But, because I hate nature and grackles are a part of nature, I hate grackles.  If the government wants to eradicate them I find nothing in my copy of the Constitution preventing it.

I dissent.

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln

February 14, 2009
Darwin in 1860

Darwin in 1860

Although we wrote about Abraham Lincoln and the birds on the 200th Anniversary of his birth, we did not forget that the same day was also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.  If Lincoln read The Origin of Species the fact is not recorded in his Collected Works nor is Charles Darwin ever referred to by name.  In fact, the word “evolution” appears only once,  referring only to the evolution of war in a document that Lincoln may not have written himself. The Origin of Species was published in 1859 – soon after Darwin learned that Alfred Russel Wallace independently had come to the same basic conclusion about the importance of natural selection in the evolution of species –  so it is possible that the book came to Lincoln’s attention, but no record exists that we know of.  We do know that both men shared a hatred of slavery, although Darwin’s outpaced Lincoln’s.

We’ll write a post about Darwin and the birds soon.  Much more can be said about his relationship with birds than Lincoln’s.  Darwin will even help us in our defense of the lowly pigeon.

In the meantime, here is Dr. Olivia Judson writing on the occasion of Darwin’s 200th.

We leave you with this thought from Darwin:  The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.

“Alex and Me” by Dr. Irene Pepperberg

November 24, 2008

We’ve written here before about Alex, the African Gray Parrot studied by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Alex could count to six, identify colors and had a working vocabulary of about 150 words.  He also had some grasp of simple concepts, an emotional life, and something that looks very much like what we humans like to call intelligence.

Dr. Pepperberg has written a book about Alex which is reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in tomorrow’s print edition of the New York Times and can also be read online. When Dr. Pepperberg began her work with Alex most scientists held the view that animals and birds had nothing we would call intelligence but were organisms which did nothing but “mindlessly” respond to stimuli.  Ms. Kakutani writes:

In the 1980s, however, “the fortress of human uniqueness came under attack” with the findings of Jane Goodall and others who worked with primates, and Dr. Pepperberg proposed to “replicate the linguistic and cognitive skills that had been previously achieved with chimps in a gray parrot, an animal with a brain the size of a shelled walnut, but one that could talk.”

Mirrors and Magpies

August 20, 2008

Not many beings on this planet can look in a mirror and realize they are seeing an image of themselves. Even humans need a few years before we figure it out. Orangutans, Chimpanzees and probably dolphins and elephants can do it but, until recently, that was about it as far as we knew. Even Border Collies, widely acknowledged as some of the smartest dogs, think that is an entirely different dog in the mirror. They try to herd it.

Now comes news that we at the top of the mammalian food chain aren’t the only ones who look in mirrors and see ourselves.

Magpie with Yellow Sticker Affixed

Magpie with Yellow Sticker Affixed

Magpies are corvids, members of the same family as crows, ravens, jays and nutcrackers. That means they’re smart. So smart in fact that they spontaneously recognize mirror images of themselves — as mirror images of themselves.

How do we know this? We don’t speak Magpie and they don’t speak Human. So, scientists placed stickers on the bodies of Magpies in positions that the Magpies could only see in a mirror. When no mirror was present the Magpies did not notice the stickers. When a mirror was present , they removed the stickers from their bodies, without bothering to try to remove them from the mirror image first. They knew that was only a reflection and went after the real thing.

As the BBC puts it, the experiment was, “the first time self-recognition has been observed in a non-mammal.” (I have a prejudice against exclamation points, but it seems to me that sentence deserved one.)

We’ll have more to say about this experiment and its implications for our view of cortex-free intelligence and about social cooperation in other species in a subsequent post. In the meantime, you can read the report of the experiment and watch additional videos of the Magpies at work. Here is one of the videos from the experiment.


Thanks to the authors of the study, Helmut Prior, Ariane Schwarz,and Onur Güntürkün for sharing their report, photos, and videos with us laypeople.

Pigeon Power Napping

July 21, 2008

Working in a nap can be difficult for birds as well as humans. And naps are important. Even a six minute nap improves a human’s memory. Pigeons need naps too but often miss them. A pigeon can’t take a power nap if there is a predator in the area. But they take naps, as do many other birds and mammals. In nature, napping is normal. In fact, it is the norm everywhere except modern industrialized clusters of humans. And, as we discussed recently, the sleep of birds resembles that of mammals even to the extent of dreaming.

Max Planck Institute Photo of Pigeon Napping

Max Planck Institute Photo of Pigeon Napping

What we call “deep sleep” is that phase of sleeping known as slow wave sleep (SWS) in which neurons oscillate in long and slow waves. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is not as deep and it is when dreams happen. More REM occurs at the end of the sleep cycle and more SWS at the beginning.

Scientists will do all sorts of things to experimental subjects, including keeping pigeons awake when they want to be napping. In a recent study at the Max Plank Institute of Ornithology they deprived pigeons of their usual late afternoon naps to see if they made up for it at night. Making up for lost sleep involves spending more time in SWS and even longer and slower wave patterns.

Just as in mammals, the scientists discovered that sleep deprived pigeons make up for the daytime sleep loss by sleeping more deeply at night. Mammals and birds, with entirely different brain structures, seem to regulate sleep in the same way.

Just more evidence that having a large cortex may not be as big a deal as we thought. To put it in the more elegant words of a nuclear physicist,

There is separation in Life but
there is no separateness.
We are all connected.
– David Bohm


The full citation for the article reporting on pigeon napping:
Dolores Martinez-Gonzalez, John A. Lesku and Niels C. Rattenborg
Increased EEG spectral power density during sleep following short-term deprivation in pigeons (Columba livia): evidence for avian sleep homeostasis.
Journal of Sleep Research (2008), Online Early Articles, February 27, 2008

Here is an abstract of the article.

Passeriformia Dreaming

July 2, 2008

When you go to sleep tonight maybe you’ll be like Hemingway’s old man and dream about the lions. Or the snakes. Or being late for a plane. Or flying without an airplane. Or flunking a test. Or any of a multitude of other dreams. But you will dream.

Nobody knows for sure why. We spend about two hours a night dreaming. Freud thought it had to do with subconscious desires. More likely, dreaming is a part of the process of transferring and synthesizing stimuli. It may be an integral part of learning. That may be when we transfer information from the hippocampi to the neocortex for long-term memory.

We’re not the only dreamers. All mammals dream and in ways similar to humans. That’s not a surprise; mammals’ brains are built pretty much the same, with a cortex governing complex processes and behavior. Mammals sleep in stages; successive episodes of slow wave sleep (SWS), intermediate sleep (IS) and rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep. As the night progresses there is relatively less SWS and more REM.

Dreaming occurs during REM sleep when the brain’s cortex is active. That’s why we thought that a cortex was required for dreaming. Birds and reptiles don’t have one and no one has ever caught a reptile or a bird dreaming.

Until recently.

Birds were known to have periods of non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) but only very short bursts of REM sleep. Nor were birds known to have a sleep-stage structure similar to mammals.

But now comes news that Zebra Finches, and presumably other passeriformes (songbirds) sleep in stages much like ours and spend time dreaming. Conclusion? Dreaming does not require a cortex.

And that raises all kinds of questions. For instance, if a cortex is not required for structured sleep, why has evolution designed two entirely separate mechanisms for doing just that? If it has, dreaming must be really important. Perhaps we can learn more about our own dreaming from birds’ dreams.

Are bird brains a great deal more complex and capable than we once thought? (The answer to that is almost surely, yes. We’ve already observed similarities in our brains and avian brains at the molecular and cellular level. A cortex may not be such a big deal after all.)

neuronal structure of cortex

Why have we now seen this type of sleep structure in song birds but not other birds? (Perhaps because songbirds must learn more complicated songs and behaviors? Or maybe we’ve just missed it in other birds? Some parrots and hummingbirds learn vocalizations and they don’t seem to dream.)

Finally, what do birds dream about? And how would we ever know? We can’t even really describe our own dreams. As Marlow says, describing the beginning of his journey into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,

“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream — making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment. . . , that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams. . . .No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence — that which makes its truth, its meaning, its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream — alone….”

But not as alone as we once thought.

The entire scientific paper upon which this entry is based can be read here. From the paper comes this two dimensional view of a computer model of the finches dreaming. Every dot corresponds to three seconds of a bird’s sleep, SWS in blue, IS in cyan and REM in red. (Image courtesy of Dr. Phillip Low, the article’s lead author.)

Bird Dreaming

People Keeping Parrots

June 24, 2008

The famous African Grey Parrot, Alex, died recently.  His fame resulted from the studies of language and cognition that Dr. Irene Pepperberg did with him.  You can listen to some samples of Alex talking or watch Alex at work.

Our point today though is not to talk about Alex.  Rather, we wanted to post an ambiguous quotation from Mark Twain.  Here it is,

She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.

Here is a self-portrait by Freda Kahlo, who clearly was the kind of person who kept parrots, what ever that may say about her.



April 9, 2008


The evidence continues to mount that calling someone a bird brain is not an insult. The BBC has this story about two Rooks — European and Asian members of the corvid family, as are jays, crows and ravens — and their problem solving capacity. In the experiment two Rooks quickly learned that they needed to simultaneously pull on two separate strings to move food into their cage. If they pulled only at one string or did not pull on both at the same time the string pulled loose and the food remained outside the cage. The birds learned this just as rapidly as did chimpanzees, those distant relatives of ours usually thought to be the brightest members of non-human species.

I am sorry to say that you have to click on this link to go to the BBC site to watch the video. It is possible that someone more web-savvy could have moved the video to this page but I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet.

But you can listen to rooks. Rooks calling

But for other videos of Rooks, you’ll have to decamp from this blog and visit this site which someone smarter than I could probably have pasted on this page.

For all the other evidence we’ve accumulated at the Fat Finch you can click on our “Bird Brain” or the “Crows and Ravens” category over on the right of this page.

Crows and Ravens, Part VI

January 29, 2008

We unaccountably missed the December episode of “Nature” on PBS about Ravens. Attempting to remedy that mistake we went in search of video from the program and found this short excerpt from the program. Long time readers will know of our admiration for the intelligence of Corvids which increased after watching this Raven contest a Bald Eagle for an avian snack and then go fishing.


Update: We’ve added a category for “Crows and Ravens.” You can find other posts in the series by clicking on that category on the right side of the home page or you can follow these links which will open in a new window:

Part I – Here.

Part II – Here.

Part III – Here.

Part IV – Here.

Part V – Here.

Part VI – Here.

Crows and Ravens – New Caledonian Crows -Breaking News – Here.

New Caledonian Crows Again – Here.

The Nature of Intelligence – Here.

Nature’s Intelligence or The Nature of Intelligence

December 15, 2007


75-mile-juniper-2.jpgThe juniper tree in the photo lives at the top of 75 Mile Ridge in the Grand Canyon. I have no idea how long it has lived there or how long it will continue living but I suspect it is in its middle age. Perhaps it is a hundred years old with perhaps another century to go. Two hundred years to watch the Grand Canyon. Not too bad a life. I spent a night with it last month and remembered a poet who thought it might be nice sometime to be a tree, “looking out in all directions at once.”

We’ve talked here before about avian intelligence. Ornithology is just one science beginning to learn that our definition of “intelligence” has been too limited.

We humans often divide organisms into three categories: Those which are inanimate, those which are sentient, and those which are also sapient. Sentient beings can feel; sapient beings are also self-aware and capable of judgment. Eastern religions don’t make the distinction, at least not as clearly. Most recognize many non-human sentient beings and many include “sapient” within the category of “sentient.” That is why a Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva, an enlightened being devoted to the liberation of others, vows to free all the numberless sentient beings which exist, not just the human ones.

Crows and Ravens use tools, hide their food caches and feel pain. Obviously they are sentient. Are they also sapient? Aware that another Raven is watching, a Raven will pretend to cache food at one spot but then hide the food somewhere else when it is not observed. Doesn’t that imply self-awareness and even judgment? A New Caledonian Crow with an ability to make tools to reach grubs was once put in a cage with another crow which never demonstrated the slightest ability to make a tool. It just waited for the tool-using crow to get a grub and then stole the grub. Single cell organisms “learn” to avoid unpleasant stimuli. Aspen trees “learned” to clone themselves to avoid the vicissitudes of sexual reproduction. Doesn’t that evolutionary decision imply sapience?

It is safe to assume that juniper tree at the top of 75 Mile Ridge is at least sentient. What if it is also sapient in some way we don’t yet comprehend? It may not be that much of a stretch into anthropomorphism to imagine that it is. That at some level it knows where it lives; knows what it is. Is it aware of a bird when the bird sits in it? It is envious of the bird’s ability to fly? Does it ever wonder where the humans who walk by it go? Would it like to hike along sometime and go experience what is up there two thousand feet higher at the South Rim of its home?”

It can’t, of course. Even if it is sapient, it is still a tree. Whatever consciousness it possesses is cabined and confined by its essential nature and its history in the Grand Canyon. It is not free to get up and move. It cannot be something other than what it is. It is not free to re-create itself from scratch. About all it can do is rearrange a branch here or there, drop some needles or change the direction one of its roots is growing.

Pretty much like us; which may be the reason we humans have had such a limited idea of intelligence. The whales, dolphins, orangutans, Chimpanzees, the crows. the ravens, even the trees may know more than we’ve given them credit for.


Gahan Wilson also speculated recently — in a manner only he can do — about the nature of plant intelligence. Here is the result of his speculations as published in the New Yorker’s issue of November 26th, 2007.071126_cartoonwilson_1_a12920_p465.jpg

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