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Research news: Big brained birds succeed

March 13, 2012

Guest post by Evan Barrientos, Cornell University Class of 2014

Do bigger brains really mean smarter birds? Like humans, some birds adapt well to city life and some do not. As the human population grows, so does urbanization of the planet and birds face increasing pressure to adapt to cities and other landscapes that are heavily modified by human activity. Conservation scientists often study how human actions negatively affect birds. But what about studying how birds adapt to human-altered landscapes?

Because relative brain size has been associated with greater innovation and the ability to adapt in birds and mammals, researchers in Europe recently tested the hypothesis that birds with proportionately larger brains are able to adapt more successfully to urban environments. They did so by comparing the relative brain size of 82 species breeding inside cities in Switzerland and France to species that only breed outside of the cities.

The Black-billed Magpie is a member of the Corvid family, one of the bird families with a larger relative brain size. Photo by FeederWatcher David Smith from Grand Junction, CO.

The researchers discovered that species breeding in cities did have relatively larger brains, on average, than species that did not colonize urban areas. Orioles, dippers, pipits, wagtails, and buntings have relatively small brains and have mostly been unable to adapt to city life. Corvids (crows and jays), tits (the chickadee family), nuthatches, wrens, and kinglets, on the other hand, have relatively large brains and often survive in cities. These findings suggest that larger brains enable birds to figure out how to survive in new environments. Further, bird families with larger brains are likely to become more abundant as the planet becomes more urbanized.

The study was restricted to two countries with a total of 82 species and 22 families examined, so results may differ in other regions with different groups of species. Further, there were a few exceptions to the ‘bigger brains are better for cities’ pattern; swallows, for instance, often breed in urbanized areas yet they have relatively small brains.

If birds with larger brains are more likely to survive in the future, does that mean birds overall will become far smarter than they are now? Is urbanization favoring increasingly large-brained birds? Will bird-geniuses develop? Will they rise against us? Only time will tell…

Evan is currently a sophomore studying Natural Resources at Cornell University and has worked at the Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library since coming to Cornell. He began birding six years ago and has always had a deep fascination and love for all of nature. Evan’s interests have drifted from biological research towards international conservation, and recently towards social issues such as environmental education and poverty reduction. When not studying, Evan can be found hiking, photographing nature (see photos here: www.ebarrientos.smugmug.com), birding, exercising, or dancing salsa.

The following video is a fun example of birds adapting to an urban environment and the big brain of Corvids being put to work. This clip from the BBC’s The Life of Birds features urban-dwelling Carrion Crows.  These crows have only been showing this behavior since about 1990.

Source: Maklakov, A., S. Immler, A. Gonzalez-Voyer, J. Rönn, and N. Kolm. 2011. Brains and the city: big-brained passerine birds succeed in urban environments. Biology letters:730-732.

One Comment
  1. Linda permalink
    September 23, 2012 2:40 pm

    I’ve seen crows drop pecans into the street along the route I walk to work, then go in to eat the broken nuts. They also leave a stash of pecans on the tops of the cement pillars that hold up the nearby fence.

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