Man v. Finch? Bet on Finch.


Jennifer Ackerman provides a masterly survey of research in the last two decades that has produced a revolution in our understanding of bird cognition…Scientists once assumed that difference (in brain size) equalled inferiority, but this has proved to be as false as the notion that brain size is an indicator of brain power. It appears that what counts is neural quality, and the avian equivalent of the cerebral cortex has proved to be as densely packed with neurons as our own…

Species such as the western scrub and the blue jay store away many thousands of seeds during autumn and retrieve their food supply when the winter pickings are slim. In recalling their stores’ whereabouts, the birds have an impressive success rate of over 70%. And even their failures often imply high intelligence, because they result from theft. Jays not only store seed supplies; they also steal from their store-hiding neighbors.  This behavior requires feats of memory but also leads to some astonishing corvine trickery. If a bird is aware it has been observed while burying food, it will often go back and re-hide it elsewhere. A further indication of complicated thought processes is the fact that only scrub jays with experience of stealing show a capacity for these sneaky countermeasures. In short, even among birds, it takes a thief to know a thief.

One of the most fascinating parts of Ms. Ackerman’s survey is her chapter on bird song. The avian counterpart to the human larynx is the syrinx, a double-sided complex of muscle, cartilage and delicate membrane that is probably the most sophisticated producer of sound in all nature. Birds learn their songs at an early stage in their development and then replicate those vocalizations with astonishing millisecond-long discrimination and accuracy. In one study, a Ph.D. student competed with a zebra finch, whose brain weighs less than a gram, and was shown to be vastly inferior to the bird in his ability to reproduce faithfully a single four-“word” sentence. While spectrograms revealed the human words to be hopelessly variable, the finch repeated its song phrases with perfect, machine-like consistency…

– Mark Cocker, Giving Bird Brains a Good Name in his book review of Jennifer Ackerman’s new book: The Genius of Birds.


  • Post Inspired: “As the birds know, who fly the continents, the oceans, for their secret reasons, a map of the earth written inside their bodies, marked under their breastbones: a continuance of the now most fragile, always travelled patiently enduring world.” ~ Hilda Morley, “Sea-Map”
  • Read longer excerpt from Lithub: The Genius of Birds
  • Image Source: beatrice lechtanski photography (via Staying Lifted)



  1. Amazing….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. magic

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Especially interesting in light of my recent observations regarding birds on my blog. Knowledge is power.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The myriad wonders of our world never cease to amaze….

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Definitely smiling, David. My man and I wonder at the even smaller species such as ants, bees, etc. Their bodies are so small, intricately woven. What evidence is there to suggest their brains are not as intricate as their bodies? What wonderful research!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nature provides such fascinating subjects. The more I learn about birds the more fascinating they become.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve watched birds build their nests in my ivy and have had fledglings land on my hand in the back yard. Finches flock to our feeder, doves coo, and all the species that surround us strike up the band and serenade us every morning. I’m especially wooed by two hummingbirds that daily haunt our red flowers. Birds are intelligent and enchanting.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is fascinating and moving. David.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. …these birdie facts and revelations are soooo fascinating! Thanks for posting, David.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. They really are amazing and have such a beautiful repertoire of songs.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I will no longer take it as an insult when someone calls me a bird brain!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. A must Tweet!

    Liked by 1 person


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