Re-thinking Thoughts on ‘Bird Brain’

bird brain image

All of us have heard or even used the expression, “Hey bird brain” or taking the insult to an even lower level, “You’re such a turkey!”  Those untoward comments, according to recent research findings, is losing clout.  Those affronts could even now be considered a tribute.

The long-standing belief was that the size of the brain was the key to intelligence and significant cognitive skills.  Thus mammals led the field whereas birds with their small heads and thus small brains were ranked at the bottom when it came to intelligence.  Current research has changed those beliefs.

Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, published her findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that birds have densely packed neurons in their brains compared brains of the same size in mammals.  In determining her findings, her and her colleagues took brain samples from 28 different bird species.  She stated, “My expectation was simply that bird brains should be different from mammals in size and number of neurons.  But we didn’t have any idea that the difference would be so extreme that in a parrot you would have as many neurons as in a mid-size primate.”

crow toolparrotspigeonBirds are capable of complex cognition.  Crows know how to make tools and use them to forage for insect prey.  Pigeons have been trained to choose from a variety of pictures or visual images.  The question was “How did nature get so much ‘hardwiring’ into such a small package?”  Thank you to the efforts of Dr. Herculano-Houzel, now we know, birds pack their neurons into a tight package.

Dr. Herculano-Houzel’s research continues.  Now that she has determined that birds have a large number of neurons in a small space, the question arises; does having a high number of neurons in a small space constitute a high use of energy?  That finding too has the potential to be valuable.