Birds have, historically, not gotten a very good wrap from humans. They might be cute, their songs might be pretty, but they’re not very bright… after all, their brains are so tiny anything they do must basically come from instinct, right?

Anyone who has seen a video of a crow solving a puzzle will know that there’s a lot more going on than we led ourselves to believe. And it turns out that problem solving is just the beginning.

Jennifer Ackerman has been writing about science for twenty-five years. She’s investigated the human body and the common cold; written for National Geographic, The New York Times and Scientific America. And now in The Genius of Birds she’s out to show us the remarkable wits of our pea-brained feathered friends.

Jennifer joined Sky Kirkham to talk puzzles, pigeons, and the sleep cycle of birds. Originally broadcast 09/06/16. The Genius of Birds is out through Scribe.

United States


00:00:00boots have historically not a very good rap from us humans show the map acute this sounds very pretty but they're not very bright after all the brains are so tiny anything they do must basically come from Instinct right well anyone who's seen a video of a crow solving a puzzle will know that is a lot more going on than we let ourselves to believe and it turns out the problem solving is just the beginning Jennifer Ackerman who's been writing about science for 25 years she's investigated the human body in the common cold written for National Geographic the New York Times in scientific America and now in the genius of birds she's out to show us the remarkable wits about paper and Feathered Friends and it's a great pleasure to have her on the show today Jennifer Ackerman welcome to the book club thank you so glad to be here
00:00:54the title effectively what do you mean when you say genius because you pointed out to the side of the book that in science language of matters of the word genius because the focus is really on what birds are good at doing in the ways that in that environment is social or ecological environmental environment what did we actually assume the birds were unintelligent with them for so long they didn't have a cortex like ours we're all the the smart stuff happens so we assumed that they weren't capable of any kind of stuff
00:01:54but that's really changed over the past couple of decades there's been a whole rethinking of bird brains and examination of Cortex light bars with a neurons organized the way that ours are but they have a very sophisticated auf we come to discover that cuz you point to sign his cold Edinger who defined The Cider of a neocortex which is what humans have how have we discovered the difference of how Bad Brains work to the bird brain and in very with very primitive no more so that's it was the assumption that that was all kind of accredited Reptilian Brain
00:02:54because I understand is that similar nerve Pathways between brain region that occur in our brain cells use the same chemical neurotransmitters so I basically discovered that there's this is created with the efficiency of the both could you look at the amount of the other things you point out is that birds with the DNA sequences have a really streamlined designer they have about a billion pairs which is really small for a living organism does the brain structure come down to that same kind of efficiency
00:03:46yes it is very efficient efficient they have a high density of neurons which was determined cognitive ability and but they are capable of stuff that I mentioned videos of crows in the introduction and many people will have seen a video of a particular Crow which uses one stick to get a longest stick which then lets him get food you put in that is a really important test that shows that a number things why was that particular test so important in terms of what it showed us about what does capable of
00:04:46so that's a double o seven and eight states puzzle another to Latin. And this is really exceptional Behavior because working memory they remember what they're doing from one stage of the song b station solving one after another cold and another thing that is quite remarkable is it apparently very good at matching pairs game so you show them a picture and they can find the cod with the matching symbol on it is it
00:05:46actually rare for a species to have that kind of working memory very interesting and extraordinary example of how working memory can exist without our kind of layers but they're just generated in a very different way what is the other really amazing things that I think most people wouldn't know about cars in this is a particular kind of crow I may ask you about why it's is kind in a minute but they not only are able to use tools that they actually create tools and they go beyond that and they keep tools like it if they craft a particularly good stick with me they keep that again is that a rare thing we hear if of humans doing to be here if I think some
00:06:46chimps doing it but I've been many of the species that do that keep tools
00:06:52no it's it is a fairly simple tools and the Other Extreme everything about this tool making facility in these birds and bees style but still making are passed down generation so this is you opening to the book club my guess today is Jennifer Ackerman Honeybrook is the genius of birds eat their about culture and passing knowledge on down through the generations
00:07:52so what's up man it's enough just cars here that other bird species as well actually teach the young I'm in where I guess many of us would have been brought up in school to be taught boats do what they do instinctually thought he we're actually told me about loaning there's no instinct to create the tool necessarily it is a toilet mechanism
00:08:14yes it is a good thing you know the debate over whether animals can teacher not have been going on for a long time but they're certainly is the phenomenon of learning from a shooter in Schaumburg to learn the young bird young male birds learn from their fathers by the same process that we learn language annotate and practice and bird that lives in South Africa and it's all the places that are are more dangerous and they so they teach their young how to respond appropriately to a frat
00:09:14this is a good place to go back to teaching going on and this kind of language use navigation in certain Birds different that's a good two different things are we talking here about different kinds of intelligence the same way that humans have this theory of multiple intelligence right tonight I think there is a debate about that about the intelligence that are modular and cognitive ability across the board and the parrot family is in that category
00:10:13Crow is not a skills Navigator the way that a pigeon is so that is a specialized ability started out but by is it fascinating another example of social social teaching is of the great tits and the blue tits and milk bottles in recent can you tell us the story please the milk bottles were left out on people's doorsteps in England and the Jets learn how to melt bottle at the cream on the very top and this technique spread all over it
00:11:13Pitfall over England getting up the cream and then we saw this example of birds figuring out how to get into something that was new to them learning from they can Patriots why did it take us why is it taking us so long to catch on that there might be something going on this kind of sophisticated for very long time and that has really only changed in the past
00:12:13when you're talking about experimentation when you testing for intelligence in a bud what are we looking for how do you design a test for a bird it's a difficult challenge scientists often use some they test the speed and success of bird has challenges that are similar to those that have strings are expressing leaders are pushing cat and then they measure how long it takes it's really challenging to get a real measure of a bird's problem solving abilities because they're all kinds of variables
00:13:13problem solving skills but but how to figure out how to test that there's a big debate about how to test animal cognition and they're really hard clear Solutions Jennifer Akerman who knew book is the genius of birds is constantly at work they're always looking for food of the day off today gallon will the building unless they're always working two birds play is there an idea of play for birds
00:13:57yes there is this is stuff that really very clever birds are and the best of this and playful its nickname. Mountain Buggy because of it and also just play some people think of them as kind of windshield wipers
00:14:57social lives is there a community when we see a flock of birds is that just a group that happens to be near each other or is there actually a sense of some kind of belonging of community within their very very social and their flocks are very much community-oriented again it depends on the species but there's some very sophisticated we didn't think they had this kind of social but it turns out that that they've been living in behaviors you know they show they argue they they can see one another they manipulate
00:15:56very sophisticated social networks that are also serve as information that works and you know you mentioned things to each other and it also reciprocity parrots I think it was even in at 11 virement will share the food with the human if they believe that the human would do the same with them plenty of anecdotal evidence of people feeding crows and then the crowd
00:16:56try and there is this idea that maybe this is why I can you can you tell me a bit about that this is one of my favorite places by bringing her food and it's about what he thinks his mate mate like they question
00:17:56she has a mind with desires that differ from his phone and probably many of us know people who would struggle with that one you also point to Magpie to do something that again we we tend to assume he's just a human or a very limited one night ice can recognize themselves in a mirror red. Was painted on the breast of Magpie and the nice guy looked in the mirror and if you can
00:18:56indicates that it understood that Its Reflection was itself and this is a very rare kind of self-awareness and animal world what does the kind of self-awareness mean what's that that implies that tells us about their understanding of the world itself and offense of
00:19:25self-awareness which is something that we thought bird with cherry this kind of knowledge is the genius of birds do we have foods with a sense of self we had both with a sense of others wheels are headphones with a sense of inequality you say that crows and ravens really don't like in a quality that's fascinating tell me about that
00:20:07right so I don't like to do any kind of path for Less rewards than another thought that that kind of sensitivity to an equity which really only gotten in the world and it's one of those cognitive tools but has really let the abolition of operation so very sophisticated kind of the social skill Cruz the Occupy Wall Street the bird world
00:20:52bird language we hit we had both we hit the bird Kohl's I think most of us recognized maybe one or two or three and they're consistent patents you can pick up it's only human language is there actually complexity in the way they communicate yes there is a great deal of complexity and black cap chickadee which is a common species here North America a scientist that studies the cause of chickadees and they believe that their system of communication is among the most sophisticated and exacting of any land animals so there's syntax meaning in bedded in Tiffany's call when you pass a chickadee call
00:21:52and the degree of fact that you breakfast. So this is a very sophisticated the first notes determines meaning in this is the first place if you play those notes in different orders you Alyssa different behavior and everything from scanning for creditors to approaching the source of all this comes back to to something we were talking about before as well which is that birds actually learn to sing this again isn't necessarily an empath I don't hatch and that control the song they need to learn how to talk that's really very rare in the animal world
00:22:52experimenting and practicing and that's culpable learning and I found learning in birds and human speech learning from this process of it we possible and it seems to be a bit Out Of Tune we shouldn't assume it's wrong it might just be figuring out how it goes today. Very very good indeed and it's not always pretty to begin with but it
00:23:52Mockingjay the birds that mimic many many of the birds Mockingbird and really if you think about what it takes to imitate another bird there Cardinals call it it mimics the actual muscle firing that's very these are very faithful imitations of The Originals
00:24:52this is really about sexual selection been told me about birds learning but they're all that there are different types of birds when they hatch and you look at it a difference between altricial vs precocial Birds some birds that can immediately hatching basically they can they can go that can stop Flying and I can do the booty thing but then there are other ones that take quite a long time to Fletch they do go through this learning process
00:25:41what does that end up meaning that difference between how smart I guess they are both of the ones that mattered both always going to be smart or does it swap around
00:25:54no this is very interesting so I'm at first they have bigger brains than El purple birds and I'll triple birds are the ones that you know and they're burn their brains are smaller than that for coastal birds at the start they end up being quite a bit larger than the branch and more intelligent and also you mentioned it at the brains become a biggest so is there a link between the size of the brain so obviously both do have brains a very small animals
00:26:54but the difference between I guess the size of the brain compared to body weight or size of animal is that actually indicative of the smarts of the bird of the boat do they get brains the ones we would consider smart but still sorting that out what what they have found is a correlation between the size of the brain and what is the ability to do new things and their environment and I want to finish on is a similarity the birds have with human to another similarity which means sleep and this was a real surprise to me reading this you say that
00:27:54the white birds like what happens when a boat sleep is similar to what happens to a human and that not many creatures actually overlap how how is it the same experience the same cycles of sleep that we do so they have slow-wave sleep and they have rapid eye movement sleep and I found it very interesting as the ideas at these kinds of sleep are actually got a critical part of growing of a big brain so birds have much. So friend sleep and we do but they may be important for the early development of human babies friends about half of our age and also
00:28:54there seems to be some sort of correlation there will you always a fan of birds just turn into it to your own I guess reasons for researching for riding the episodes always been in love for you and I always thought they were very resourceful animals that up and took notice of these lines that are fairies and Blossoms and I was just fascinated I wanted to explore what's more stories about birds
00:29:54fishing using actual fishing implements creating Birds hunting by sent Foods we all kinds of amazing things you're going to have to pick up the new book by Jennifer Ackerman it's called the Genius of birds it is out in Australia through scribe and should be an open book stores Jennifer thank you so much for your time today

Transcribed by algorithms. Report Errata
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