The VICE Guide to Right Now

Latest Research on Brain Structures Reveals How Birds Are Actually Intelligent and Even Self-Aware

So if you’re called a 'bird brain', take it as a compliment.
September 29, 2020, 8:54am
birds are intelligent
Photo courtesy of sanjiv nayak / Unsplash

It has never been a better time to be a bird. While researchers have believed since a while now that they are sharp-witted, two brain studies have come along to reveal how birds are not only highly intelligent but also have conscious thought. 

In recent years, birds have been found to make tools, understand abstract concepts, and even recognise paintings by Monet and Picasso. But their lack of a neocortex—the area of the mammalian brain where working memory, planning, and problem-solving happen—has long puzzled scientists. But the two papers, which are being hailed as “ground-breaking” and were published last week, find birds have a brain that is much more similar to ours than previously thought. 

Part of this is the result of the work of Martin Stacho, a neuroanatomist at Ruhr-University Bochum, who decided to investigate the avian forebrain, which controls perception. While a comparison of mammalian and avian brains suggested they had nothing in common, "birds and mammals have many of the same cognitive skills,” said the scientist to Science

Stacho and his colleagues examined microscopic slices of three homing pigeon brains using 3D polarised light imaging. This technique let them analyse the forebrain region of birds called the pallium—considered most similar to the mammalian neocortex. The scientists compared the images of the birds’ pallia with those of mammalian cortices such as rat, monkey, and human. Their research revealed the fibers in the birds’ pallia are organised in a manner strikingly similar to those in mammal cortexes.

Stacho and his colleagues think the findings also represent a glimpse into ancient animal brain evolution. The last common ancestor of birds and mammals was a reptile that roamed the earth around 320 million years ago. And its brain, the team believes, was probably a precursor to that of the two lineages that diverged through evolution. 

In another study, Andreas Nieder, a neurophysiologist at the University of Tübingen, sought to find out whether birds had conscious experiences. He observed the brains of carrion crows as they responded to cues—creatures who are also known as “feathered apes” for their intelligence. 

They trained two lab-raised, year-old carrion crows to move or stay still in response to a faint cue displayed on a monitor. When correct, the birds were rewarded. The scientists then implanted electrodes in the crows’ brains to record their neuronal signals as they responded. When the crows reacted, their neurons fired, suggesting they had consciously perceived the cue; but when they didn’t, their neurons were silent. 

The two works combined led scientists to believe birds may have incredible thinking capabilities. Although bird and mammalian brains “look very different, this study shows us they are wired in very complementary ways," said John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist and specialist on crows at the University of Washington, who was not involved in either study to Science.

However, this work is bound to raise some eyebrows, as some researchers argue that consciousness is uniquely human. We suspect that the “Birds Aren’t Real” movement supporters aren’t going to be too happy about this either.

Follow Satviki on Instagram.