Birds' brains are structured differently to those of mammals. This has led many scientists to dismiss them as stupid. But new research has revealed that when it comes to brains, different does not necessarily mean inferior. A new book by Nathan Emery explains that there is now a great deal of evidence to suggest that birds possess impressive intelligence and could be considered "feathered apes"".
The Cerebral Cortex
Birds lack a cerebral cortex and so scientists presumed that birds were incapable of higher thinking. But it is now known that in birds, another part of the brain, the pallium, has evolved to function in a similar way to the cerebral cortex in mammals. In addition, birds have shorter connections between the sections of their brains than mammals. This means that they may have the ability to make decisions more rapidly.
What is Intelligence?
In 1960 Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees making tools and thereby displaying the ability to problem-solve. The ability to make tools became the benchmark for intelligence. Since then a number of avian species have been discovered to use tools, mainly to retrieve items that they cannot reach with their beaks. However, Nathan Emery believes that tool making is not the only yardstick of intelligence. He says that it is difficult to compare one species with another as they have evolved to possess different skills.
Emery explains that rooks are better than eight-year-old children at reaching treats with a wire hook but inferior to those children when it comes to other tasks. The ability of some birds to mimic human speech and the complex social structures of certain species are also indicators of intelligence. Emery feels that intelligence can be described as the ability to solve problems using cognition rather than simply instinct or rote learning.
Unfortunately, only a small number of avian species have been tested for their intelligence. Emery predicts that hornbills, woodpeckers, and falcons may prove to be highly intelligent because of the relative size of their brains. Even the domestic chicken may be surprisingly intelligent. Chickens are the most populous bird on the planet and humans consume them in vast numbers. But a chick which is just one day old can tell the difference between objects. We may have to completely rethink the way we view chickens' quality of life.
Emery also proposes that we should consider whether it is appropriate to shoot game birds for sport and whether farmers should kill crows to stop them destroying their crops. Crows have been shown to be as intelligent as chimpanzees and we wouldn't find it acceptable to shoot apes for sport or because they threatened a farm.
Looking in the Mirror
Chimpanzees look and behave a little like humans and so we can relate to them. Birds use their brains in different ways to mammals but that doesn't mean that their abilities are inferior. Intelligence can manifest itself in many ways and perhaps it is time that we stopped feeling so superior and started appreciating the special abilities of birds.