Mountain Chickadee Brains

Mountain Chickadee Brains

One interesting scientific question is whether brain cells can be increased or replenished. People say the brain is the only body part where the cells are not replaced every seven years. That seems reasonable since replacing brain cells could cause us to lose stored memories. Doctors are limited in what they can do to help people with brain injuries because of the inability to repair or replace brain cells. Scientists have found some interesting facts in a recent study of mountain chickadee brains.

The study at the University of Nevada has shown that brains can change when environmental factors demand it. Researchers comparing the brains of chickadees separated by a few kilometers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains found substantial differences in the brains of the two populations. Chickadees living at an elevation of 7800 feet showed significant brain differences compared to those living at 5900 feet. The hippocampus of the higher-elevation chickadees was larger, and the neuron density was greater. Tests showed enhanced spatial cognition at higher elevations, so caching and recovering food will be better for the higher mountain chickadee brains.

If you assume that both populations of chickadees came from a common ancestor, then brain development genetic change has been catalyzed by environmental factors. For example, a greater need for food caching and recall has led to physical changes in mountain chickadee brains.

The question is, could we apply this to humans with brain injuries? Is the brain designed to allow this kind of change? The brains of chickadees living in the harshest environment must develop better spatial memory to survive. Does this mean human intelligence can be affected by life challenges and environments? We need to point out that intelligence is not necessarily related to brain size because a bigger brain does not mean you are more intelligent.

Studies like this demonstrate the flexibility God designed into the DNA of living things. So maybe being called a “bird brain” is not as derogatory as people previously thought.

— John N. Clayton © 2023

Reference: Living Bird magazine from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the winter of 2023, pages 46 – 53, and “Harsh Mountain Winters Have Made Chickadees Smarter” at

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.

Can’t Get That Song Out of My Head

Can't Get That Song Out of My Head -Yellowhammer Singing
Have you ever had a song stuck in your head? Sometimes we hear a song, and it seems to keep ringing in our brains for days. It may be a song we love. Sometimes it’s an annoying song that we can’t stand but can’t forget. Advertisers often use jingles in their commercials hoping that their little songs will keep haunting us until we buy their products. Whether good or bad, I can’t get that song out of my head.

I can be thankful that whatever the song is, it will eventually go away–and be replaced by another one. Imagine what it would be like if you had only one song for your whole life. More than that, imagine that your children and future descendants still had that same song. That could be the description of the life of a songbird.

We love to hear songbirds, and with a little effort, we can learn to identify different species of birds by their songs. That’s because, for the most part, each species has its unique song that it passes on from generation to generation.

Songbirds are born with a song stored in their brains. As the birds grow, they learn to match their vocal patterns to the song in their heads. Even if a baby bird never hears its parents sing, and although surrounded by the songs of other species, it will still learn to sing the song that its parents sang. There are a few species of birds that can imitate the songs of other birds, or even human voices and other sounds. Those birds are born with a different program built into their brains that gives evidence of a creative Designer of life.

When I can’t get that song out of my head, I can start singing or listening to a different song. Humans have that ability because the Designer has given us a creative capacity. That’s part of being created in the image of a creative God. But what if all people made their houses precisely the same way? Besides singing the songs of its parents, a bird will build only the same kind of nest its parents made. You would have to say that Someone also stored the nest-building instruction book in the bird’s brain.

Is it possible that an intelligent Designer drew up the nest plans and created the songs and placed them in the bird’s DNA? Generation after generation, the song and nest data are pre-programmed for the birds to follow. Remember that the One who drew the nest blueprints and wrote the songs and programmed them into the tiny brains of those birds is the One whose, “eye is on the sparrow” and furthermore, “I know He watches me.” (Matthew 10:29-31)
–Roland Earnst © 2018

Bird Brainpower

Bird Brainpower
In the February issue of National Geographic, there is a fascinating article about what birds can do. The skills of bird brainpower include puzzle solving, using tools, studying others, vocal learning, socializing, remembering, and social playing.

These abilities are all related to the size of the forebrain compared to the total brain mass. Bird brains vary enormously. Some species such as ravens have very large brains with 80% of the brain involving the forebrain compared to a pigeon having a very small brain with only 48% in the forebrain. In some cases, birds work together pooling their bird brainpower with each having a different role. Some birds prefer certain kinds of music while others seem to show empathy.

It is important to understand that some scientific questions could be raised about the claims that the article makes. In one case, for example, when air was blown on a chick’s fathers, the mother’s heart rate increased. The investigators claimed that shows empathy. A strong wind can be dangerous to any bird. So the question is whether the mother was feeling empathy for the chick or was she concerned over the cause of the wind and what it might do to her.

The article also mentions a cockatoo who rocks in time to the Backstreet Boys tune “Everybody” and a starling who “is happiest when his owner is playing a classical movement on the piano.” The article says the starling likes Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Bach. However, it doesn’t say how you measure starling happiness, or what the owner likes and repeatedly plays in the bird’s presence.

It is a fact that birds show high levels of certain kinds of intelligence, and they can do things that seem almost human-like. However, the things birds can do are not attributes which the Bible ascribes to humans. Many animals are intelligent and can learn from humans, so it is easy to see how the characteristics discussed in the article help the bird survive.

The attributes of being created in the image of God, which is how the Bible defines humans, do not involve any of the characteristics in the article. The creation of art, the creation of music, and the expression of worship are human functions. Also, the expression of the”agape” type of love which does not promote survival or have sexual connotations is a human trait. We don’t see the capacity to be sympathetic and compassionate in these interesting studies of bird brainpower.

The more we learn about the creatures in the world around us, the more we are amazed at the design built into their DNA. This design allows living creatures to navigate, occupy environmental niches, and reproduce in amazing ways. It is all part of knowing that God exists through the things He has made. (Romans 1:18-22)
–John N. Clayton © 2018