Bird Brains and Efficient Neurons

Bird Brains and Efficient Neurons
A Macaw has a 20-gram Brain

In the 1950s, if you wanted to denigrate someone, you could call them a “bird brain” because people believed birds weren’t very smart. This assumption probably came from association with domesticated chickens. However, a 2016 study showed that bird brains are denser than those of many other animals. For example, a macaw has a 20-gram brain, and a squirrel monkey has a 30-gram brain, but they have the same number of neurons. 

A new study of bird brains by researchers in Germany shows that bird neurons are more energy efficient than those of mammals. For example, pigeon neurons use three times less energy than mammal neurons. Birds are designed to do many things requiring brain power, including flying and singing complex vocalizations. 

The lead researcher of this study suggests that the brains of birds are organized so that neurons can more easily exchange signals. Organization does not come out of random chance mutations. It requires an organizer. Watching birds around our feeders, we see them doing some incredible things. We know that they are guided by brains that have specific functions allowing them to find and use seeds and other food sources in the winter. 

The brains of all animals are designed to allow them to live in a particular environment. What is unique about humans is that we can alter the environment rather than being altered by it. Also, our brains allow activities such as art, music, complex mathematics, worship, and the ability to be taught to think. Our spiritual nature sets us apart and allows our creative activity and our understanding that there is life beyond the grave. 

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: “Food for Thought” in Scientific American December 2022.