For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Brains

Original Air Date: April 10, 1996

Birds aren’t as stupid as we think. Date confirmed.

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As birds grow from nestlings into fledglings, they develop more and more behaviors, some instinctive, some learned, and some a fascinating combination of the two. The first time a baby Blue Jay tastes an ant, it spits it out—ants are laced with formic acid, giving them a bitter taste. But then the Blue Jay rubs its tongue against the roof of its mouth and suddenly picks up the ant again—not to eat, but to rub on its feathers. This “anting” behavior coats the feathers with that bitter acid, which may serve as an insecticide, but baby Blue Jays don’t learn this—it’s completely instinctive. The behavior is apparently “released” by the bitter taste of the ant—some birds rub other bitter things on their feathers, too.

My Blue Jay Sneakers plays with my children’s Hot Wheels—little metal cars that go really fast on a smooth surface. When we line up the cars on the dining room table, she pushes them off one by one, and with each push she runs to the edge of the table to watch the car crash to the floor. When she’s knocked all the cars down, she squawks until we line them up again. Playing with Hot Wheels is not an instinctive behavior. But maybe pushing things off tables is instinctive—leastwise, every kid I’ve ever sat in a high chair played that exact same game, only instead of hot wheels, they always used their food. Baby birds and little kids—they’re more alike than people realize.

A bird’s brain is a bit smaller and smoother than a comparably-sized mammal brain, perhaps because birds are stupider than mammals but more likely because they’ve somehow managed to make even their brains more efficient to accommodate the complex needs of flight—a Sharp­ shinned Hawk not only needs to process sights to detect prey in the first place, it must also be able to coordinate its movements to avoid tree branches while in full pursuit of its prey, a bird with an even smaller brain that usually manages to evade the sharpie successfully by keeping track of where it is even as it darts and weaves through forest branches.

Chickadee brains are known to grow new neurons to replace old ones every fall, right when chickadees need to memorize new food storage places—storing memories of every crevice in a birch tree years after the tree was chopped down would waste valuable brain space. We humans may think we’re smarter, but my personal brain space is brimming with worthless knowledge—! can recite a Chicago phone number, Hudson 3-2700, from a radio commercial back in the 1950s, even though I don’t have a clue whose number it was. I also remember an entire jingle beginning, “At three in the morning when you’re in bed, the Holsum bakers are baking bread.” Birds may have little brains, but they sure don’t waste valuable neuron space with the theme song to “The Beverly Hillbillies” decades after show was canceled.