Birds Are Memory Champs
We humans lose our keys and often can’t remember the location of half a dozen identical items. “Maybe it takes a bird brain to find the car keys,” teases Susan Milius in the cover story of the Feb. 14 issue of Science News.1 Ornithologists have been intrigued with how birds remember where they stash their food. One champ is Clark’s nutcracker, a noisy denizen of western national parks observed and named by the Lewis and Clark expedition. In a year, each bird buries 22,000 to 33,000 seeds and manages to find two thirds of them 13 months later. Chickadees and scrub jays are pretty good at this game, too. Experiments have demonstrated that bird memories are flexible and can even do time travel into the future.
How could such good memories evolve? The only going theory seems to be that tough times select for better memories. As evidence, researchers found that Alaskan chickadees outperformed Coloradoans in a seed storage and retrieval contest. Not all ornithologists are convinced of this theory, however, since the two species differ in many other respects. “To resolve the question of whether tough times have contributed to the evolution of catching wizardry is ‘currently difficult,’ says [Nicola] Clayton [Cambridge].” More experiments will be required, but Milius concludes, “What started out as a fidgety search for the operating rules of feathered robots has turned into studies of how thinking works.”
1Susan Milius, “Where’d I Put That?” Science News, Vol. 165, No. 7, Feb. 14, 2004, p. 103.
The claim that tough times create design is like the Phoenix myth, that a living bird arises from the flames of catastrophe. No. Fire burns, and stress kills. Making stress a creative genius is no explanation at all, yet it remains a favorite plot in Darwin stories. Didn’t an asteroid blast give rise to the zoo of complex and diverse mammals, according to the going myth? We can enjoy the marvels of birds without the insipid, useless, wasteful, distracting, unsupportable, pseudoscientific bad habit of trying to find evolutionary origins for everything. Remember that.
Next time in Yellowstone, Yosemite or other western national parks, don’t be annoyed by the squawking of the nutcrackers and jays. Pay them a little respect. They’ve got a better memory than you in that little brain of theirs. Milius began her article by reprimanding, “Should humanity get a little too full of itself and its intellectual prowess, there’s always Clark’s nutcracker to think about.”