by Denny Olson

It was such a relief, after seemingly endless COVID variants, cancellations, sequesterings and quarantines, to see real people in front of me at the January “hybrid” meeting. I almost felt that I recognized some of the well-spaced upper halves of faces in the audience — but it’s been a while, you know … Big kudos to Geek (er … Jake) Bramante for pulling that off. It was a hodge-podge of audio and video microphones, camera, computer, wires and wireless, and it worked! Actually, it worked very well!

I got my first chance in quite a while to do a short “Bird Brain” synonym quiz using the names of Gallinaceous (read: good to eat) birds such as the “Ashen Semi-hogback” or “Gray Part-ridge”. Be forewarned: I have somewhere between 150 and 200 fairly reasonable bird song imitations in my repertoire for future Bird Brain fun at our meetings, and there will be chocolate in it for you …

The other thing that happened at the hybrid meeting was a revelation of sorts. At this writing, the acceleration of Omicron variant infections is close to exponential. It may even peak and be on the decline by the time you read this. That unknown, along with the well-seasoned demographics of participants at the meeting, has made me back off on my intention to do a family-oriented, with kids, program at the March 14th FAS public meeting. It’s too soon for that kind of choosing-volunteers-from-the-audience interaction. I’ll do that later, when we get to whatever settles as the new “normal”.

And since I’m addicted to fun, the thought that came to me simultaneously was “why not go all-out with the Bird Brain idea and do a whole program on the irony of calling anyone a “bird-brain” or a “dodo”. Birds have nearly always been thought of as tiny-brained dinosaurs that operate purely on instinct and avoiding traumatic experiences by doing rudimentary learning. Humans, even scientists, on the other hand, have this tendency toward close-mindedness (even bigotry, believe it or not!). “Prove it” is the byword. 

And sure enough, those scientists who suspected something deeper about birds’ brains have opened a door to such qualities as precise memory of the past, taking perspective, planning, extensive tool use, reconciliation and empathy — qualities that fall under the umbrella of cognition. Thinking! Deep thinking! (“Well, duh!”, say all of you long-time birders.)

So, at that March meeting I’m going to make the case for Ravens being as smart as chimps, caching corvids and chickadees having memories that make us look downright stupid, thrashers and wrens having language skills well beyond kindergarteners, magpies doing “meta-thinking and self-awareness — recognizing selves in a mirror and slight differences in human faces, hummingbirds having neural connections that operate hundreds of times faster than ours, brain-speed adaptations that allow starlings on one side of a murmuration to move instantly in the same direction as those on the other side a quarter-mile away, and evidence for birds having “wakes” and funerals, reconciliations after a fight, and empathy for the disadvantaged. Ptarmigans have fun at sledding parties, ravens and crows have show-off aerial acrobatics contests (“hold my beer, watch this”) , scrub jays have developed security systems that thwart burglars, crows make their own tools for food preparation, and some warblers have the technology to get up to 500,000 miles per gallon of fat on their migrations! (Elon Musk, eat your heart out …) And oh, as if they weren’t smart enough already, Chickadees grow the “hippocampus” part of their brains seasonally — when they need to find food faster …

So, March 14th, I’ll fill in the blanks and have some fun at humans’ expense. Until then, if someone calls you a “bird-brain” … wear it proudly!