Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bird Brains

I've always been fascinated by stories about avian intelligence. Researchers like Irene Pepperberg have shown us that parrot's communication skills may be more than mere mimicry. I love reading things like Bernd Heinrich's Mind of the Raven, which delves into the cognitive abilities of the eponymous bird. As a kid I knew that corvids were pretty bright. Smarter than our cat anyway. Tim, a sloppy old tomcat that lived with us for a while, liked to sit out on the porch railing and soak up the sun. Now and then a blue jay would swoop down in front him. He'd get up on his back legs and make a grab for the bird while another jay would dive in and peck poor Tim on the back of the head. They'd get him every time.

Still, I wasn't too sure about stories I'd heard about songbirds recognizing particular people. Some folks who have a few feeders have said that they are sure that regular visitors to their yards have come to recognize the people who keep the feeders well stocked. That sounded a bit far fetched to me. Crows, maybe, but passerines? Surely they just aren't that bright. As Mrs. Bundy says in The Birds, “their brain pans are not big enough.”

Mrs. Bundy was, of course, horribly wrong. And so, it seems, was I (although less horribly). Scientists at the University of Florida have shown that mockingbirds can recognize particular people, and will attack those they don't like. Remarkable. The study of birds seems to be endlessly rewarding.

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