BOSTON, MASS - Birds are remarkably adept at tasks involving communication, navigation, and certain types of memory, researchers have found. In some unusual cases, these abilities may even surpass those of humans. Although we tend to think of cognition as the purview of humans and our closely related kin, it's time to extend the courtesy to birds as well, scientists said today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting.
It's easy to accept that non-human primates, with whom we share so many physical similarities, are capable of cognition--generally defined as the ability to take in large amounts of information about the world and use it in decision-making. Or that dolphins and other cetaceans, with their large brains and often human-like behavior, are as well.
Birds, however, are a different story. They look nothing like us and act nothing like us. Evolutionarily speaking, birds and humans are miles apart. Lest we underestimate the bird brain, however, some birds do have a flair for certain types of cognition.
For example, there's Griffin, a Grey parrot, who lives in the lab of Irene Pepperberg, at MIT and Brandeis University. Griffin has recently begun combining objects in specific orders, and doing the same with vocal labels. Such behavior once thought exclusive to humans, great apes, and monkeys, according to Pepperberg.
"The simultaneous emergence of both vocal and physical combinatorial behavior was thought to be a purely primate trait, derived from primate brain area. The fact that we are finding this in animals so far removed from primates is exciting," Pepperberg said.
Children begin to order word combinations and object combinations at approximately the same time in the development process. Researchers have proposed that a language-related region in the brain, called "Broca's area," controls both these abilities during the earliest stages of development. A
Contact: Monica Amarelo
American Association for the Advancement of Science