What do humans have in common with ‘bird brains’?

I’ve always found birds to be fascinating, not simply because of their number and variety, but because of what they are able to achieve. They have been shown to possess a range of skills and capacity for complex social reasoning with the ability to solve problems and demonstrate the capability to craft and use tools, recognizing themselves in a mirror, and planning for future needs…all cognitive skills previously considered the domain of primates. Scientists have been wrestling for some time with the question of how birds with their small brains perform such complicated cognitive behaviors.

Recent studies now have found that birds can perform complex behaviors because birds’ forebrains contain a lot more neurons than previously thought. One, a Vanderbilt study, “…found that birds, especially songbirds and parrots, have surprisingly large numbers of neurons in their pallium, the part of the brain that corresponds to the cerebral cortex, which supports higher cognition functions such as planning for the future or finding patters. That is why they exhibit levels of cognition as least as complex as primates.”

This recognition of the bird brain is counter-intuitive since mammals and birds have been evolving separately for hundreds of millions of years and would be expected to have very different brain structures, but such is not the case. The researchers surmise that this might suggest that evolution has discovered a common blueprint for high-level cognition in brain development. In any case, it is a little startling to learn that a common Starling has brain wiring similar to humans.

One researcher, struck by the surprising results, said: “Something I love about science is that when you answer one question, it raises a number of new questions”. This illustrates one of my personal philosophies, which is that: “Your intelligence is inversely related to how smart you think you are.” In other words, the smartest people, in my view, are the most humble. They are humble because they realize that the more they learn about something, the more they don’t know. The real truth is that the bird is smarter than we think.

So being a ‘bird brain’ is no longer a pejorative term, maybe even now it can be a compliment.

(Sources: Vanderbilt University, Imperial College London studies)