As humans we really don't think that psychologically, birds are capable of the same mental tasks that other mammals are, and much more specifically, some of them are in the rarest of company with us — they are near-sapient, just like our close relatives.
For example, the Eurasian magpie has passed the mirror test for self-awareness. Some birds are tool-users, able to count, and some have been able to learn some rudiments of our language. Some birds are capable of empathy, altruism, and appear to mourn, or at least acknowledge, their dead, just like we do.
Studies have recently shown that humans and birds have brains that are wired in a similar way.
A researcher from Imperial College London and his colleagues have developed for the first time a map of a typical bird brain, showing how different regions are connected together to process information. The team discovered that areas important for high-level cognition such as long-term memory and problem solving are wired in a similar way.
Birds have been shown in previous studies to possess a range of skills such as complex social reasoning, an ability to problem solve and some have even demonstrated the capability to craft and use tools.
Professor Murray Shanahan, author of the study from the Department of Computing at Imperial College London, says: “Birds have been evolving separately from mammals for around 300 million years, so it is hardly surprising that under a microscope the brain of a bird looks quite different from a mammal. Yet, birds have been shown to be remarkably intelligent in a similar way to mammals such as humans and monkeys.”
The team analyzed 34 studies of the anatomy of the pigeon brain, which is typical for a bird. They focussed on areas called ‘hub nodes’, which are regions of the brain that are major centres for processing information and are important for high level cognition. In particular, they looked at the hippocampus, which is important for navigation and long-term memory in both birds and mammals. They found that these hub nodes had very dense connections to other parts of the brain in both kinds of animal, suggesting they function in a similar way. They also compared the prefrontal cortex in mammals, which is important for complex thought such as decision making. They discovered that despite both hub nodes having evolved differently, the way they are wired up within the brain looks similar.
Most everyone is aware of at least some of the differences between birds and mammals. Whereas birds have feathers, lack teeth and lay eggs, mammals have fur or hair for insulation, possess teeth and give birth to live young. Although birds are more closely related to reptiles than mammals, birds and mammals have several characteristics in common.
Both birds and mammals are warm-blooded, which means they can maintain a constant body temperature and do not need to rely on an external heat source to stay warm. This similarity lends itself to several other commonalities, such as similar caloric requirements by weight and the ability to remain active in colder temperatures. Cold-blooded animals, such as reptiles, do not have to eat as much, but they also cannot survive colder temperatures. Being warm-blooded also gives birds and mammals the unique ability to live on any landmass on Earth.
All mammal and bird species are classified as vertebrates, meaning they have backbones and skeletal systems made of bone. Birds, however, have hollow bones with a crisscrossed matrix for added strength. The hollow bones are lightweight, which allows the bird to take flight, while the structural matrix adds strength to withstand the pressure of taking off and landing.
Birds require a lot of energy in order to fly. This also necessitates a circulatory system that is both efficient and effective, so they have evolved a four-chambered heart with two atria and two ventricles, just like mammals. One of the main benefits of this type of circulatory system is that it allows the separation of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood. Other species of animals, such as reptiles, have hearts with fewer chambers, which means a much less efficient model.
The blood of birds and mammals contains both red and white blood cells, called erythrocytes and leukocytes respectively. The red blood cells in both classes of animals contain hemoglobin, a protein containing iron that is responsible for oxygen transport and gives blood its red color.
Caring For Young
Another similarity between birds and mammals is that both classes care for their young after they're hatched or born. The length of time varies from species to species, depending on the age that the young are first able to take care of themselves. Female mammals feed their young by lactating, while birds feed their young beak to beak.
In fact, birds – at least some of the species we have studied – have a surprising number of things in common with humans when it comes to using voice as communication. Both birds and humans can learn how to use their voice, and some birds and humans can even mimic other species – the best proof that vocalisation is a learned behaviour.
Australian magpies and lyrebirds are probably the most outstanding mimics in the world. Both species have pure tone, beautiful sounding song and extensive repertoires.
There are reports of people who, hearing the neighing of a horse where no horse should be, were driven by curiosity to check in the yard. Moving to the source of the sound, they saw a magpie sitting in a tree doing a mighty good imitation of a horse.
Incidentally, a true-blue Aussie budgerigar is the Guinness World Records holder among birds in the number of words it can mimic – more than 1,700 English words!
We now know that birds can have multiple and remarkable cognitive abilities. They can also feel, have empathy and even grieve for the death of a partner; magpies in particular, apart from parrots, can form long-term friendships with humans or their dogs.
So the next time you look at a bird, remember they are not as different from us as you might think!
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