SciFri Book Club: One For The Birds

34:04 minutes

flock of roughly 30 birds flying in a group together against cloudy blue sky. the have large bills
A flock of birds near the Palo Alto Baylands. Credit: Don DeBold/flickr/CC BY 2.0

illustrated stack of books with text 'scifri book club'This story is part of our summer Book Club conversation about Jennifer Ackerman’s book ‘The Genius of Birds.’ Want to participate? Sign up for our newsletter or send us your thoughts on the SciFri VoxPop app.


colorful yellow bird watercolor on yellowed paper background. the bird is wearing a perfect crownCalling All Birdbrains!

We hope you’ll join us for Egghead: The Genius of Birds on August 29 in NYC! The Science Friday Book Club invites you to an indoor birding adventure, where we’ll explore the lives and minds of our fowl friends. Learn more and buy tickets here.

“Birdbrain” has long been an insult meant to imply slow-wittedness or stupidity. But in reading Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds, SciFri Book Club readers have been learning that birds often have wits well beyond ours—take the mockingbird’s capacity to memorize the songs of other birds, or the precise annual migrations of hummingbirds and Arctic terns. Or the New Caledonian crow, which make tools and solve puzzles that might mystify human children.

We close out the summer’s birdy nerdery with a celebration of some of these bird geniuses, and learn how researchers are investigating their minds through experimentation and observation. UCLA pigeon researcher Aaron Blaisdell and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Lauren Riters join Ira and producer Christie Taylor to talk about the brightest minds of the bird world, and the burning questions remaining about avian brains.

Plus, this book club has been one for the birds! Check out all the ways we celebrated our feathered friends during the Club.

We Got Outside And Observed Some Birds

We partnered with citizen science platform iNaturalist to make a map of bird observations. SciFri Book Clubbers spotted over 200 species of birds across the U.S., and from as far away as New Zealand! Check out the full map. Plus, it’s not too late to join the project! 

a large bird flies over our heads with spread wings and a fanned tail against a clear blue sky
A red-tailed hawk, spotted by iNaturalist user Sea-Kangaroo. This was the most-observed species during the project.
small bird with white belly, black head and wings, and a blotch of red on its chest perched on a surface with its head cocked and looking downward
The rose-breasted grosbeak was one of the less common birds on the map. This one was spotted by iNaturalist user Trisha Shears.
green parrot-like bird sits on a railing and looks over its shoulder at the camera
This kea is the farthest-flung bird to make our map! iNaturalist user (and SciFri Education Director) arieloquent snapped this photo.

We Sounded Off About Our Favorite Brainy Birds

Martha on the SciFri Book Club Group on Facebook: “Based on the evidence, the species that is most widely distributed and smart in all senses of the word seems to be the raven. Big black bird lives on the white ice and snow, in the tundra, forests, ocean cliffs, grasslands, farm fields, cities and suburbs. This shows its adaptability. It is a family oriented bird that teaches and learns, interacts with other species, including humans, coyotes, wolves, other birds, to its individual benefit and apparently to mutual benefit. It entertains itself by making toys, playing with them, doing air acrobatics alone and with others of its species. A flock of ravens has been seen messing with hang gliding men, the ravens getting in front of the hang gliders and doing full rolls, as if to say “can you do this?” I am not interested in birds learning tricks or behaviors demanded of them by humans. I am interested in how animals respond to their world, and the complexity and effectiveness of the agreements they make. On all these bases, I nominate the Raven for the Olympic gold in smarts.”

We Learned How To See Like A Bird

The Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College in Los Angeles is a trove of more than 65,000 bird specimens mostly collected in Mexico and South America from 1933 to 1955. Joshua Medina is a 3D artist who specializes in digitization at the lab. Medina develops 3D models so people can see the colors, patterns, and tricky visual cues in bird plumage, which can be difficult to visualize for study. Read the full article. 

We Asked A Corvid Researcher Our Questions In A Reddit AMA

Corvids are famously clever. So, when we decided to read The Genius of Birds, we had lots of questions about these intelligent birdbrains. Kaeli Swift is a behavioral ecologist specializing in crows and other corvids at the University of Washington, and she spent two hours answering your questions about corvid behavior, from funerals to grudges to other feats of intellect, in a reddit AMA. Read the highlights, or check out the full AMA.

angry crow perched in tree
A crow scolds in response to seeing the dead crow. Its calls will recruit other birds to the area to investigate. Credit: Kaeli Swift

Further Reading:

Segment Guests

Aaron Blaisdell

Aaron Blaisdell is a professor of comparative psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Lauren Riters

Lauren Riters is a professor of integrative biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Is bird brain a compliment? No, right? I mean, you got to say no because we’ve long associated that phrase with someone who’s not that smart, which makes sense if you go by that old assumption about birds themselves. Small heads, lightweight bodies can’t have much room for weighty thoughts, right, if you also want to fly.

But if you’ve been reading our summer book club pick, Jennifer Ackman’s The Genius of Birds, you know there is a lot more going on in the mind of a bird than we used to give them credit for. The famous tool-using crows of New Caledonia, brightly decorated nests of bowerbirds, mockingbirds’ amazing memorization and mimicry, and of course, the annual migration over thousands of miles by so, so many species.

Our listeners have been reading the book all summer and sent some observations of smart behavior through our Science Friday Vox Pop app.

MICHELLE: Here in New Zealand, we had two little blue penguins trying to make a nest under a sushi shop in Wellington City and then waddle in the shop looking for food.

MORELIA: I think a smart animal is an animal who can reach its objective, either through communicating with other animals, or figuring out a way to communicate with humans, or being resourceful in their ideas and figuring out how to problem solve.

RONNIE: I think every kind of animal knows how to do what it needs to do. So I think defining smart is, in a way, trying to compare apples to oranges.

GREG: Once when I was fishing, I was repeatedly whistling the theme song to the Rifleman television show. After doing it many times, I went silent. Not soon after, I heard a mockingbird repeating back the first few notes repeatedly.


IRA FLATOW: Thank you to Michelle from New Zealand, Morelia from Oregon, Ronnie from Pennsylvania, and Greg from Kentucky for those comments. We’re going to spend the rest of the hour celebrating these brilliant birds, and here to help, we’ve got sci-fi producer and bird book nerd, Christie Taylor. Welcome back, Christie.


IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you back. So–

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, me too.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I’m a bit sad to be done talking about birds for this year.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I am, too, and you know, as someone who really loves birds, but I actually don’t know much about them individually, I’ve really loved having an excuse to dig down deep into some of the topics about their brains. We’ve learned that birds can see in the ultraviolet this last summer and that the birds that we see are not the birds that birds see, for example. The way songbirds learned to sing has a lot to do with how we learned to talk, all kinds of things like that.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm, and we sent our listeners out looking for birds. I know I was paying closer attention to my backyard feeder this summer. And even though this is the last week for the book club, I feel like my appreciation of birds isn’t over. I’m very happy to keep looking for those birds.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, me too. And thanks to everyone who joined us on the iNaturalist app to share some of their cool bird findings. There were people who went out looking and they found some really neat species– keas, gross beaks. Meanwhile, all I found were pigeons, but as we’ll hear soon, pigeons are really, really smart.

IRA FLATOW: That’s true. Let me bring in the rest of our bird nerds to talk about that. Let’s bring them in right now. Aaron Blaisdell, professor of psychology at UCLA, welcome to Science Friday.

AARON BLAISDELL: Hi, Ira, thank you for having me here. And hi, Christie.

IRA FLATOW: And Dr. Lauren Riters is a professor of animal behavior and neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

LAUREN RITERS: Hi, Ira. Hi Christie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So Aaron, I’m going to start with you because we just mentioned pigeons, and you’re studying those in particular. How smart is a pigeon?

AARON BLAISDELL: Well, as the commentators were already savvy in suggesting, it’s really tricky to define smart. It’s kind of a general purpose word.

But if we think of it within psychology as how kind of intelligent are you in a way that we think that humans differ in intelligence between each other, then you can start looking at some basic aspects of smartness, like what is their cognition like? What kind of memory do they have? How much can they learn and what kind of learning? And can they even do abstract reasoning? And on all of those kinds of dimensions of cognitive processes, we see that pigeons, when they’ve been studied on these, show strong abilities across the board.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Lauren, when we’re marveling at specific tasks the bird is good at, like singing, and navigation, and problem solving, do all of these map back to specific parts of the brain being better developed, like the hippocampus and navigational skill?

LAUREN RITERS: Yeah, that’s a good question. And it’s very– yeah. People are interested in looking at that. So for example, the hippocampus is the best studied brain area for its role in spatial cognition in birds. So it’s larger in homing pigeons, which they develop these amazing navigational maps that they use to find their way home from locations they’ve never been before.

And chickadees and scrub jays, they catch seeds, and their hippocampus is larger. And even female cowbirds, that they don’t put eggs in their own nest. They have to put them in other birds’ nests, so they have to keep track of all these spatial locations of nests. Even they have larger hippocampi with more neurons. So yeah, definitely, people are really interested in what brain areas regulate these different amazing abilities.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So where did that bird brain stereotype come from in the first place, Lauren or Aaron?

LAUREN RITERS: OK, I’m happy to–

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

LAUREN RITERS: –start that a little bit. Sure. So it was known that– I mean, if you look at a bird brain, first of all, it is smooth. It’s not wrinkled like a mammalian brain. If you look at the layers of the bird brain, you don’t see distinct layers, actually. It’s just not organized the same way as a mammal brain. So it’s thought that by flying, birds gave up– flying, you need to be light, and they thought this means that your brain has to be smaller.

And then when people named brain structures in the brain, they called them things like paleo, as if they were old. And when they named structures in the mammal brain, they called them neo, as if they were new. And so it wasn’t until we started looking more closely at neural chemicals, the way the brain is organized and counting neurons, that we realized the bird brain is much more complicated than we first thought.

IRA FLATOW: So I was really struck by the New Caledonian crows about how smart they are at making tools. Explain to our listeners just how smart they are.

AARON BLAISDELL: Well, I’ve kind of read a lot of the literature and following that for many years about the New Caledonian crows. And crows are a member of the corvid family. And corvids in general– so corvids includes other kind of crows, rooks and jays. They tend to be really smart. We’ve recognized for a long time that they seem to be able to solve problems better than other birds.

But the New Caledonian crows are just even an order of magnitude smarter, seemingly. They can make their own tools. So there is a small island, New Caledonia, in the South Pacific, and they’ve been shown to either take twigs and bend them into hook shapes or to cut the pandanus leaves, which big broad leaves, into stepped tools, like a saw. And then they use these tools to reach the crevices that their bills cannot reach all the way into, and they pull out grubs and other kind of critters to eat.

IRA FLATOW: And the other thing about that is once birds learn a new tool, they can teach other birds? That’s amazing.

AARON BLAISDELL: Yeah, I wasn’t so sure about the teaching part because teaching specifically has– by definition, involves the teacher intentionally trying to shape the behavior of the pupil. And my understanding, from what I’ve read, is that in animals, this is almost non-existent, pretty rare.

But what I think the New Caledonian crows do is offer the young the opportunity to observe the adults using the tools. And they can learn through that observation.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So Lauren, your work got– and then mentioned in the book– And one of the things that we’re asking in the course of looking at your research, for example, is are birds enjoying what they’re doing? Or why are they singing? How does one interrogate that question in the first place?

LAUREN RITERS: Right. So I think that’s a really interesting question. And it is clear why birds are singing in some contexts and what reinforces it. So it’s clear that males are going to sing courtship song to attract mates, and if they attract a mate, that’s reinforcing. But they also sing in other contexts that aren’t as well studied. So right now, you’re going to start seeing birds like starlings forming large flocks. And we know that they sing a lot in these flocks and that it is actually really important for them to practice their song. Starlings learn songs throughout their lives.

But it’s not clear why in an immediate sense that they’re singing. And I looked through some of the literature, and I was surprised to see that Darwin actually proposed that maybe in these contexts, birds are singing because it feels good. He says that they’re singing for their own amusement. And there is evidence for that.

So for example, in starlings, we found that if birds are singing in these flocks, they develop a preference for where they were singing in those flocks, just like you might develop a preference for a place where you had a positive experience, like a good meal in a restaurant, for example.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Well, let’s go to the phones, because there’s so many people who want to talk about this. So let’s go to Kathy in Indiana. Hi, Kathy.


IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

KATHY: So my question is I live in North Indiana, and last summer, we heard a bird that sounded like a blaster, like a science fiction blaster being charged and then fired. And it sounded like this [MIMICKING BIRD] And no one can tell me what it is.

IRA FLATOW: You want to do that again? [LAUGHS]

KATHY: Yeah, it sounds like this. [MIMICKING BIRD]

IRA FLATOW: OK, maybe we can get it identified. Aaron, Lauren, got any idea?

AARON BLAISDELL: Well, I’m not very good with bird calls. So Lauren, do you have any experience with that?

LAUREN RITERS: Yeah, I am not sure I’m quite getting that. It’s not unfamiliar. But yeah, I, too, I’m not an ornithologist, although I do know more about birds than other people. So the pew pew pew– yeah, I’m not sure what you’re listening to.

KATHY: Yeah, it was very strange. And several of us heard it. I didn’t know– is there a way to get online? Is there any kind of website that would do sound recognition that we could look it up?

AARON BLAISDELL: That’s a good question. I know there are apps now that have been made available for music or even for speech that do that. But I’ve never thought to look in the space for bird call recognition song. But that would be a great tool. I don’t know of any.

LAUREN RITERS: Yeah. I think people are working on birdsong apps that can do that. And you can definitely go on websites like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and play back the songs of birds that are living in your area, and you could probably identify that bird.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I have a question for everyone, actually, before we go back into research questions, since this is a book that gave us a really wonderful broad survey of all kinds of ways in which birds are smart and all the cool things they do. I did want to see if anyone has a new favorite bird after reading this book, or even just a new appreciation for a bird that they didn’t appreciate before. Ira, I’m going to let you go first.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, I started watching– interesting thing after reading the book, I started watching for smart birds or smart actions of birds. And I saw some social actions of birds that were described in the book about how they deal with each other. But my still my favorite bird– maybe it’s because it’s taken me so long to get it into my feeder– is still my hummingbirds.

And what’s surprising about the hummingbirds, which were talked about in the book, is that they come back. They come back every year to the feeder, right? I mean, they know where it is, and they come for the food. Is that right, Lauren?

LAUREN RITERS: That is right.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Aaron, did you get a new favorite, or are you still stuck on pigeons?

AARON BLAISDELL: Well, pigeons– actually, even though I study pigeons, they’ve not always been my favorite bird, although since studying them, they’ve become one of my favorites. Hummingbirds are actually still one of my favorites, but I think reading the book, what I found new appreciation for were two, one that has been a long term favorite, but I have even more respect for now, and that’s the mockingbird. Incredible diversity within an individual of how plastic the song is. That is, how much it can change and adopt the sounds that it hears and really mimic them to such a great extent.

And the other was the bowerbird. Oh my god, I knew about bowerbirds, but by reading the book, I didn’t realize quite, one, how intense the competition was between males for attracting a female as a mate, and two, just the sheer complexity of some of these bowers.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Lauren, your favorite bird?

LAUREN RITERS: All right, I think that’s an impossible question. I do study starlings, and I know that ornithologists would be screaming because they’re invasive and they’re kicking out native bird populations. They’re agricultural pests, but I do have a strong appreciation for them.

However, if I had to think of my favorite bird, I actually came up with a backyard bird, which is the cardinal. So I think they’re beautiful. I love the male’s red plumage. I love the female’s– kind of her tan and gray plumage. They both sing. Females sing on the nest. Males are feeding the females while they’re sitting on the nest. I think they’re gorgeous in summer. And then in snow, which I’m in Wisconsin, right? We have really rough winters. Those gorgeous cardinals I think are a really nice bright spot for me.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’ve got them in my backyard, too. And it seems like they run in families. Am I right about that? There seems to be six or eight at one time.

LAUREN RITERS: Well, I think it depends what time of year because they definitely don’t tolerate other birds very well. But you’ll have a male-female pair in your backyard, and then you might be observing their offspring. And then in fall, they become a little more socially tolerant when they’re not defending breeding territories. So they’re at your feeder. You may observe a small flock of cardinals.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Does social behavior make a bird smart? I mean, this is one thing that Ackerman talks about in her explorations. But is there an intelligence to hanging out with other birds?

AARON BLAISDELL: Well, I think that there can be. This is the social intelligence hypothesis, which has also been used to understand human intelligence. There is some support for it. And then there’s some support that it’s more of a technical intelligence. And both of those kinds of approaches have been covered in the book.

And I think you can look at examples, and coming back to the bowerbird, actually, that’s one example where intelligence seems to have been shaped by sexual selection. That is, by females choosing the males that can produce the best bowers, the most symmetrical, that have the best songs and dances to accompany them.

And they also tend to scale with brain size, which is kind of a proxy for intelligence. So the bowerbirds that build the most elaborate nest and have the most elaborate displays tend to have the relatively larger brains within that group of birds than the smaller ones.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see if I can get a quick phone call in from Oregon. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday. Hi there, go ahead.


IRA FLATOW: Hi. Quickly please.

AUDIENCE: So this morning when I got home, my yard was full of bird sounds. And then I noticed there’s a little bird stuck in my woodshed window. And I went and I grabbed it and got it outside. And then all the rest of the birds, the crows, the hummingbirds, the quails, everybody calmed down.

IRA FLATOW: So they were all watching as if they knew it was rescued.


IRA FLATOW: Wow. Is that true? Lauren, do you know?

LAUREN RITERS: Well, that is interesting. I mean, I’ve definitely read studies where if a bird is in distress and they have heart rate monitors on other birds nearby, that their heart rate goes up even higher than it would in response to thunder. So birds will definitely respond to the distress of another individual.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to come back and talk lots more with Christie Taylor, Aaron Blaisdell, and Lauren Riters. Our number 844-724-8255, call us about your bird experiences. Also you can tweet us at the @scifri. We’ll be right back with more on the brilliance of birds after this break.

You’re listening to Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re finishing up our summer book club pick, Jennifer Ackman’s The Genius of Birds. And I know that if you’ve been listening, how smart and talented they really are. I mean, you’ll learn a lot from this book. With my guests, Dr. Aaron Blaisdell and Dr. Lauren Riters, and here to take us along the way is Christie Taylor, our book nerd on this one.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Book bird nerd. Yeah, so Lauren, one of the things that this book talks about, too, is you’re interrogating bird enjoyment of things. And one of the things we talk about is bird play, so there are these famous crow videos of crows sliding down and sledding on things, on roofs, for example, and parrot owners, they know they need a lot of toys to stay happy. But like, why is play so important? And how do we even know if this is about enjoyment or just a random behavior trait?

LAUREN RITERS: Right, so I was definitely interested in the play part. Do birds do things just for fun? And when you think of play, it’s synonymous with fun, which makes it seem not very serious. But I think that this is an important topic. So play develops physical skills, cognition, social skills. And these are skills that birds need to use later in more serious situations.

And so the book includes some famous examples that you’ve mentioned. Playing parrots and keas are basically destroying towns in New Zealand because they play so hard. You’ve got ravens playing catch, crows sledding.

But given the impressive cognitive skills we see in birds, I was surprised to see that it’s often said that about 1% of the 10,000 bird species play. But I actually think, based on some of my research, does it feel good to sing, I think that we could add 4,000 songbirds to that list.

Because when they are learning or practicing song, I propose they’re playing because they’re trying out different songs, they’re sequencing and reseeking elements, sequencing elements. They’re basically riffing. And so there is evidence that this type of singing is pleasurable. And so I think that we can say those birds are playing as well, and we even have some evidence that it could be rewarded by endogenous opioids, which is something that you also see for play.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones to California. Linda, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

LINDA: Oh, great. It just came back in. It was cutting out for a while. Hi.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.


IRA FLATOW: Linda, go ahead.

LINDA: I wanted to– we have jays in our backyard. And one of them, in particular, has come back several years in a row. We have a big bird feeder, and he will land on it and shake it, shake it. And then he’ll fly up on the fence and let the starlings and the finches and things come and eat the grain on the ground. And he never eats it.

And I thought, is he doing this out of the goodness of his heart, or– I don’t know. I kind of feel that he does that because of that. Yeah, it’s a male because it’s blue. We have a creek behind us, and there’s plenty of food over there. So is this a behavior that–


LINDA: –birds are known for?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Aaron, is this an altruistic bird?

AARON BLAISDELL: [LAUGHS] Good question. These anecdotes are very tricky to interpret because you don’t know what the reason is that the bird started doing this behavior. But there is some evidence for altruism in the sense– and among birds as well as mammals– but in the sense that it tends to be something that’s reinforced to some degree.

So it is often maybe when this jay had started doing this and it brought other birds, maybe there was something that happened at that first few times that reinforced this jay’s behavior, and now it’s kind of learned to do this. Yeah, it’s very tricky, but definitely there are a lot of interspecies interactions of both communication and non-communicative interactions in birds.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Let me give you my $64 question I ask all the time. If you were to study birds and what don’t you know that you would most like to know, and what kind of equipment would you need on my blank check, which I don’t have for you.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: 64 whole dollars.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, shucks.

AARON BLAISDELL: Lauren, do you want to answer that first?

LAUREN RITERS: Oh, that is an impossible question. There’s so many interesting questions. So I think one thing is just, it’s really hard to know what the birds are perceiving and what they’re experiencing. So huh, what would be the question that I would ask? Yeah, Aaron, if you have something while I’m thinking about this, please jump in.

IRA FLATOW: No, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot on that. I just thought–


AARON BLAISDELL: But I could jump in. I think–

IRA FLATOW: Well, is there something about imaging bird brains or learning about the structure of their brains, or how they work, or anything like that?

AARON BLAISDELL: I think the how they work, like getting inside– getting inside the mind of an animal, that’s what I do for a living. And it is tough work because really, you’re driving inferences from the behavior. And even imaging neural activity, the brain in action while a bird’s doing something, is still the behavior of populations of neurons. So it’s giving you indirect evidence to what they’re experiencing from their own point of view.

But nevertheless, those are the steps, the closest steps we can take. I think if I had a nice big check it would be to add imaging, real detailed type of imaging of the brain while they’re doing these complex interactions, like the New Caledonian crows, and see what’s going on there that we can then compare to how human brains also work. And we can extrapolate from that.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: That’s actually brings to mind a question that I have had, Lauren and Aaron. And we’re having an event in New York City actually next week where our audience members get to test themselves against some of the same problems that we know birds are really good at, like remembering where they hid lots and lots of food. But is it really fair to compare birds and humans?


CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Can we learn– is that fair? Can we learn anything? Or are they completely different kinds of intelligence? And Lauren, you go first.

LAUREN RITERS: Yeah, well, I was going to say– so we have a hard time measuring animal minds because we can’t perceive things that they perceive. We don’t even have the sensory capacity. In some cases, we can’t hear song the way they do. We can’t see feather color the way they do.

And so we want to interview a bird, but to do so, we need to ask the right questions that makes sense to birds, and you need to give the right species the right test. It’s got to be tough, but not too tough. And often, this means you have to make the test ecologically valid, so asking birds about what they do in their natural environment. And so then if a bird flunks the test, you have to consider the possibility it’s really your test failed the bird because maybe your human bias.

IRA FLATOW: I got a lot of calls coming in. Let’s see how many we can get in. Let’s go to Minneapolis. And Jim, hi, Jim. Welcome to Science Friday.

JIM: Hi, there.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

JIM: Well, first of all, I have a wild guess that the person who called in earlier with the pew pew pew bird call, that sounds a lot like a blue jay alarm call to me. So she might want to check some of those on that Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. They have a set of sounds you can download.

My question is about counting. Can you talk about birds’ counting skills and arithmetic skills? Which birds are good at it? And why would they have evolved the ability to do counting and mathematics?

IRA FLATOW: Hm, good question.

AARON BLAISDELL: That’s an excellent question. And there’s a few– two species in particular, in which this has been studied most extensively. One, of course, is the pigeon, which is very easy to study in the laboratory using our typical behavioral techniques. And pigeons do show this ability to order items based on how many are in the set. So they’ll pick one, and then two, and then three, and then four.

And after they learn to pick an order of items, 1, 2, 3, 4, you can give them five versus seven. They’ve never seen either before, and they’ll pick the correct ordering of those numbers. And parrots also can do these kinds of things, of course, even more extensively than pigeons.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Here’s a tweet coming in from MSM on Twitter says, “I live in South Florida. Through observation, I can recognize when there is a bird of prey in the area. All of the birds sound an alarm and a call that is very distinct. Different species will call out at the same time. Do they understand each other?” That’s great. Is one species, one kind of bird, signaling to everybody, or how does that work?

LAUREN RITERS: Well, birds definitely eavesdrop on other birds and take advantage of– they’ll hear another bird’s signal and they will definitely respond. And so some birds will call when they see a predator. Starlings, they go silent. So if we’re observing birds and they go silent, we know a hawk has shown up. But other birds definitely tap into the social information provided by other birds.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. We’ve got lots of calls. Let’s go to Marjorie in Socrates, New York. Hi, Marjorie. Marjorie, are you there?


IRA FLATOW: Go, go for it. Ah, you must be on a cell phone or close. Oh, OK. We have to drop Margie She had an interesting question about ravens and how smart ravens were. So that’s made abundantly clear in this book, Lauren, isn’t it? Ravens are how smart they are.

LAUREN RITERS: Oh, yeah. The ravens are incredible. I mean, there are so many examples of the ravens. They are just– well, the whole corvid family, hiding food, making tools, deception. They’re involved in deception. The way they open food, dropping nuts onto streets so that cars can roll over them. I mean, it’s amazing some of the things that they can do.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I feel like I need to break in and speak for non-corvid birds for a second because they are very popular and we talk about them a lot on this show, and they’re definitely very smart. But we had Steven in our Facebook group mention that he actually has a different nominee for smartest bird if we’re going to rank them. He said the corvids are hard to beat.

Yet the ability of many species to navigate very long distances is mind blowing. We love to feed hummingbirds. Their antics can be very entertaining. And these tiny birds migrate such long distances. Also, the ability of homing pigeons to return to a home roost is also legendary.

IRA FLATOW: And that reflects a tweet that David says. How do birds, for that matter, know how to find their way without a map and return to the exact same spot, such as migration? How do they know that?

AARON BLAISDELL: Well, there’s a combination of many different kind of skills that they might use. And for example, the homing pigeon, use, if they’re far from home, they’ll use kind of large global cues like where the sun is and where the stars might be if they’re flying at night, or even odor trails, odor gradients. So they can smell downwind or upwind kind of a more familiar location. And they’ll use that to get their bearings and get their direction.

As they get closer to where their home is, they’ll start using things like visual cues, landmarks that are familiar to them. And so what’s amazing is some birds like the pigeon can use a wide variety of cues. Others, like the Indigo bunting that travels hundreds or thousands of kilometers, use the North Star.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Let’s get an interesting sidebar question from Bill in Cleveland. Hi, Bill.

BILL: Hello, how are you?

IRA FLATOW: Fine. Go ahead.

BILL: OK, first question is, can we actually trace bird lineages? I mean, birds are a dinosaur lineage, and I read too recently that the modern orders of birds actually came into existence before the K-T boundary happened. Has there ever been any genetic experimentation or reading done to find out where maybe the first original modern bird came from? Second, favorite bird, boat-tailed grackle. They’re smart, and they’re generalists.

IRA FLATOW: All right, do we have any knowledge about the lineage of birds? When did the first birds start? Anybody know? When was the bird a bird?

LAUREN RITERS: Yeah. It’s thought that birds and mammals diverged from a common reptilian ancestor over 300 million years ago. And they are doing a lot of genetic studies looking at the genomes of different birds. And they’re kind of surprised they’re smaller than most other animals, smaller than most mammals. And it’s thought maybe that has to do with flight. Like everything’s smaller because of flight.

And I thought it was really interesting to note– and this was also in the book– that turkeys are thought to be one of the most closely related to dinosaurs. And so that’s easy. When I’m looking at them walking around my backyard, you can see sort of these reptilian, these actually dinosaur like features as they go around.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about birds with Aaron Blaisdell, and Dr. Lauren Riters, and Christie Taylor.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, and since we talked about the past of birds, let’s talk about the future for a second. The last chapter of the book looks at what is maybe the best adapted bird for this human dominated era we’re in, and maybe it is the house sparrow, which we see everywhere. They are apparently smarter than pigeons in some ways. They seem to have this novelty seeking behavior that makes them really well adapted to cities. Lauren, you found this actually kind of depressing in the long run, right?

LAUREN RITERS: Well, I did. I thought this was an important chapter, the last chapter of the book. But it was kind of the buzzkill chapter because each chapter, you’re introduced to one fascinating example of bird genius after another in all these species.

And it’s clear by the end of the book that birds are highly interconnected with the rhythms of the planet, so they time their breeding and migration to closely match seasonal changes in temperature or the photo period, the availability of insects, and plants, and flowing water. And there’s the example of the red knot that they need to time migration perfectly to match horseshoe crab eggs.

So the changes we’re making to the planet disrupt the synchrony. So the plants and insects may not be available, and birds need them. And what that means is a lot of these cool species, they’re at risk, except the most flexible, which would be the sparrows, crows, maybe starlings.


LAUREN RITERS: But even, you know– yeah, pigeons. And they’re fascinating. But the book really, I thought, created awareness about the interconnectedness of the birds and what we have to lose if we don’t watch what we’re doing and take care of our planet.

IRA FLATOW: Are you saying that climate change really is affecting the birds?

LAUREN RITERS: Yeah. Well, the climate change can throw out of sync the availability of the resources that the birds need to breed. And you’re changing temperatures, so some species that are living on mountains are having to move further and further up the mountains, right? So that they can exist at temperatures that work for them, and they’re running out of space. So yeah, climate change I think is a real problem for these birds.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Aaron, are you optimistic about the future of birds?

AARON BLAISDELL: Well, I agree with Lauren and with the bulk of that, that it’s really a dire situation for the number of different species. But if you take the longer range view, I like to balance it out a little bit– the stoic in me– to balance out the longer range view is that even after the catastrophic event of the dinosaur mass extinction, it allowed such a radiation of mammals and birds. And whatever mass extinction we’re going to cause, I like to think that the life will recover, become variable and diverse again, as much as I’m weeping about the current loss of diversity.

IRA FLATOW: One last Twitter question is what is the frequency range of– what frequency are the birds sensitive to? What do they hear?

AARON BLAISDELL: You mean hearing?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Or is it above the range? Like, we always see dog whistles, they’re above our hearing. Are they–

AARON BLAISDELL: That depends on the species. Lauren, you might know more about that. But I know some birds really can hear really high levels and some in the infrasound.

LAUREN RITERS: Yeah. So a lot of the frequency range is similar to ours. But some can hear out of the frequency range. And then they also are adjusting the frequency. So this is the thing we’re talking about the climate and how there’s noise disturbance. And so birds will adjust their vocalizations, singing at different frequencies to try to avoid noise pollution that we’ve introduced.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve run out of time. So much to talk about, so little time, as always. Dr. Aaron Blaisdell, professor of psychology at UCLA, Dr. Lauren Riters, professor of neuroscience, University of Wisconsin in Madison, and of course, SciFri producer and book club captain Christie Taylor.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you so much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

AARON BLAISDELL: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Until next time–


IRA FLATOW: –keep on reading. And hey, we’re not quite through yet because if you’re in New York, come to our Brainy Bird Party next week at Caveat, August 29. Caveat, August 29, details and tickets on ScienceFriday.com/birdbrain.

Charles Bergquist is our director. Senior producer, Christopher Intagliata. Our producers are Alexa Lim, Christie Taylor, and Katie Feather. Today we had production help from Lucy Huang, and our intern is Camille Petersen. Technical engineering help from Rich Kim and Kevin Wolf. BJ Leiderman composed our theme music.

And of course, we’re active all week on social media, Instagram, Twitter, wherever. If you have a smart speaker, you can ask it to play Science Friday whenever you want to, so every day now is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

Copyright © 2019 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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