Birds of a feather

I neglected my fitness regime to lean out of a window at sunset and enjoy the golden light. At this time of the day the skies are dominated by two combative gangs: the parakeets and the crows. Fifteen parakeets sat on one tree, or is it sixteen? Sixteen crows were in another. When I saw them, I remembered reading something about how intelligence and complex social structures evolve together. I hadn’t read about birds and their cognitive abilities much, except for tidbits about how crows can recognize human faces, songbirds can learn from others, and that pigeons can follow roads. So I looked up what is known of the brains of birds and was surprised out of my neocortex. Apparently birds have incredibly complex brains, which are organized completely differently from ours. An article gave a nice analogy, mammalian brains are organized like a club sandwich, in layers, but birds’ brains are organized like a pepperoni pizza, with different bits sitting next to each other. Most surprising of all, apparently the language learning part of our brains is functionally similar to that of parrots and songbirds, who also learn from hearing each other.

But the biggest surprise of all was a paper published just a couple of months ago. It seems that someone has measured brain to body ratios in a large sample of birds, and from fossils of avian and non-avian dinosaurs. The complex brains of birds began evolving when their bodies they became smaller than those of their saurian ancestors, but their brains did not change in size. After that some have evolved larger brains by growing big in both body and brain sizes, but with more rapid growth in brains. Of these, it seems that parrots and crows have the largest brain to body ratios, and they are right in the same ballpark as us. We’ve all heard about the fabulous ability of parrots to memorize phrases and say them back to us. I didn’t know that they rank with the crows in their ability to recognize human faces, and tell them apart. It’s more than I can do with parakeets. There are even claims that they can recognize that their companions can reason just like them.

There is a crow which sits on my window as I sip my tea in the morning and read the newspaper. Sometimes I’ve caught it craning its neck as if it was trying to read the paper. Maybe it was!

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

14 comments

  1. Who would win in a fight of the brains between the two? My money would be on the crows. There is a specie in Australia that grabs firing branches from wildfire to smoke out its preys!!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I work at a museum with a wall of shiny windows that reflect the sky all up the facade and sometimes crows will wait in front of it to scare small birds. The birds fly away quickly in terror…straight into the windows and gets stunned. Then the crows eat them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wouldn’t be surprised. A band of half a dozen ravens hung out where I hiked every day. They knew me. One day, after I climbed straight up a slope, I found them riding thermals from the rocks on the tops. I sat down to watch them. Pretty soon, they were watching me watch them and they started showing off, then coming back to see if I’d watched. It was one life’s grand moments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That must have been amazing! Around here, when there’s a stiff breeze at sunset, crows will face out to the sea and balance themselves against the wind. They seem to enjoy hanging there without flapping their wings.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think they love wind. They were diving off the rock, spreading their wings, letting the wind carry them up, soaring and coming back, two or three at a time like surfers out in the ocean.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks. I had not seen the information on brain to body size. But I have seen a television program on the extensive abilities of crows. It would seem the more we learn about them, the more we are amazed.

    Liked by 1 person

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