We all love birds. Of all the non-human animals on the planet, they are the only ones who are everywhere, all the time, tropics or arctic, and they flaunt their brain power as well as their beauty. Other animals, from meek mice to roaring lions, tend lie low or even hide, whether to avoid being eaten or to avoid scaring off their lunch.
Not birds. They are loud and in your face. They are bold. And they are amazing problem solvers, displaying a brilliance and a group of skills that no other animals possess.
I just finished reading a great book titled The Genius Of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. I always knew birds were special. Ms. Ackerman explained why and how.
We often notice the smarts of our dogs. We notice the smarts of dolphins and elephants and apes. These animals can all do amazing things with memory (finding buried toys or food), searching (dogs and dolphins using scent to find and track explosives), communication (dolphins give each other names), making tools to get food (chimps make hunting spears), complex social interactions (elephants mourn their dead with specific rituals).
But birds are the only animals who do all of the above plus can learn to mimic other animal communication with astonishing fidelity, use tools to make other tools, build impressive homes using many kinds of materials, make dramatic, colorful art installations that have no functional purpose and are only designed to attract mates, and keep track of the calendar to the day. For example, Hummingbirds can memorize the location of thousands of flower/nectar food sources and the dates those flowers typically bloom. Then they show up each year on the same day after migrating hundreds or even thousands of miles.
One of their most amazing abilities is their navigation ability. Birds create a mental, geographic map of their world that includes vision, hearing, smell, and even magnetic field information. They are of course born with the right wiring. But it is their learning through observation of their parents and trial and error that gives them these skills.
In a notable experiment, scientists in Seattle trapped birds that have lived their entire lives on the West Coast. They attached tiny transmitters to the birds, then put those birds into a closed metal container (comfortable inside for the birds). The container allowed no information, light or sound or magnetism, from the outer world to seep in. Then, using a circuitous route, the scientists took the birds to the East Coast, 3000 miles from anyplace they'd ever been, and released them. The birds flew around a bit as if to do a little reconnaissance about their new area. After a day or so, the birds headed west. In a few days, the birds all returned home.
While many birds are born with certain innate understanding. Scientists have learned, and demonstrated, that most critical bird navigation is learned. And if you take away that learning, birds cannot navigate well at all.
Next week, I'll discuss the question of what that means for people relying on GPS to give them directions to their destination. Hint: It ain't good!