For the Birds Radio Program: The Ascent of Birds

Original Air Date: Nov. 20, 1989

Are humans really more evolutionarily advanced than birds?

Audio missing


(Recording of a Blue Jay)

Two of the most basic and unquestioned assumptions that scientists make about evolution are that mammals are more highly evolved than birds, and that humans are somehow at the top of the mammalian evolutionary line. I myself like to think this assumption is true, since I happen to be a person, not a bird.

But sometimes I wonder. No one denies that birds have superior visual and hearing skills, or that birds have far more efficient cardio-vascular and pulmonary systems than any mammal including man. Feathers are far more complex than hair or fur—the perfect aerodynamic insulation. And birds have managed to exploit more areas of the earth than any other group, including humans. Albatrosses and frigatebirds spend their lives on the ocean, alighting on land only to breed. Penguins are the masters of Antarctica, ravens of the arctic, sandgrouse of the desert.

And of course humans cannot fly. The only truly flying mammals, bats, are far more restricted in their habitats than birds. Not only do birds make their homes near ours, and even in ours, they also exploit what are for us the most inaccessible islands, cliffs, treetops, mountains, ice floes, and deserts. Loons dive deeper, ostriches run faster. Crows outswear us, thrushes outsing us. Blue Jays could win a shouting match with Morton Downey Jr. As a matter of fact, looking at it objectively, the whole avian system of defending territory through song seems much more highly developed than the primitive mammalian method of duking it out.

Okay—so birds didn’t develop agriculture—or did they? As the glaciers retreated ten thousand years ago, oaks migrated north far more rapidly than any other tree species–at a rate of about 400 yards per year, compared to the next fastest, the spruce trees, whose light, airborne seeds allowed them to move just 280 yards per year. The acorns hardly traveled north on their own—they were carried and planted by Blue Jays. Jays are uniquely adept at selecting viable acorns to plant—88% of the seeds they bury are fertile although only about 10% of the acorns on a typical tree are fertile. And jays plant far more than they themselves need, apparently making provisions for their future food supplies in exactly the way wise farmers and foresters do. Of course the trees Blue Jays planted hundreds of years ago can be chopped down by a human in five minutes, but if that is proof of our evolutionary superiority, then it follows that robbers and muggers are more highly evolved than their victims.

No birds smoke or chew tobacco or use cocaine, although they do occasionally succumb to alcohol as autumn berries ferment. Never does a bird embezzle money, nor do their savings institutions require bailing out.

Of course, it is possible that in spite of all this evidence, you don’t really believe that birds are superior to us. After all, everyone knows that humans are intelligent, and that birds have…well, bird brains. So I’ll offer this one last item. My family has one of those big cardboard windshield covers to keep our car cool when it’s parked. Clearly printed on it is a warning which people are apparently stupid enough to need. Not even the most foolish nighthawk, a bird of very little brain, would never need to be told, in bold red print, “Warning: Do not drive with auto-shade in place. Remove from windshield before starting ignition.” Yep–the human brain isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”