Tag Archives: Birds

New study: parrots have similar brain mechanisms to humans

A cockatoo uses a little tool he made to reach a snack
A cockatoo uses a little tool he made to reach a snack

OK, it’s a fun Friday post. I guess most of my readers know that I love almost all the birds, and especially parrots. I have owned parrots most of my life, and want to get more, too. I also like to feed the wild birds who come to visit my house. One reason I like them so much is that they are very intelligent and obviously designed by a very clever engineer.

First, let me explain what convergence is, then we’ll look at a recent peer-reviewed scientific publication.

We have to start this Science Daily post with the definition of convergence in biology.

In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

It is the opposite of divergent evolution, where related species evolve different traits.

On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes; see long branch attraction. In cultural evolution, convergent evolution is the development of similar cultural adaptations to similar environmental conditions by different peoples with different ancestral cultures. An example of convergent evolution is the similar nature of the flight/wings of insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats.

All four serve the same function and are similar in structure, but each evolved independently.

So, naturalists say that if two organisms have traits that are similar, it must mean that the trait evolved once in their ancestors, and then the modern species inherited the trait from those ancestors. If evolution is true, the only mechanism they have to develop traits shared by two organisms is mutation and selection. The problems occur when two organisms share similar traits, but they have no recent common ancestor, and no recent shared evolutionary history of mutation and selection.

Here’s the latest study from the New Scientist:

To learn more how these birds’ brains develop, Mello and his team compared the genome of the blue-fronted Amazon parrot with that of 30 other birds. They found that regions of the parrot genome that regulate when and how genes for brain development are turned on are the same as those found in humans. These so-called ultra-conserved elements evolved in both species at different times, but with similar results.

Well, parrots and humans are completely different creatures, with no recent evolutionary history, and no recent common ancestors. So, if these changes are due to evolution, then we should see them in the very very very distance common ancestor shared by birds and humans. But then shouldn’t they be in all the other animals who descend from that very very very distant common ancestor to?

Watch this:

I’ll tell you what the real explanation is: the real explanation is that God created birds and humans. And, like a clever engineer, he re-used components that produced the behavior he wanted in his birds and his humans. We know how this works, because this is how intelligent agents write code today. Why do we need a naturalistic theory that requires magic to work, when we have a simple explanation that we can  observe every time someone writes a blog post, or some code, or anything with information in it?

Anyway, however you feel about that, try to be kind to birds, as they are much smarter and more sensitive than most people think. Put out some bird feeders in the yard, if you don’t have an outdoor cat. And if you do have a cat, then why not put a bell on it, or keep it indoors?

Related posts

New study: parrots have similar brain mechanisms to humans

A cockatoo uses a little tool he made to reach a snack
A cockatoo uses a little tool he made to reach a snack

OK, it’s a fun Friday post. I guess most of my readers know that I love almost all the birds, and especially parrots. I have owned parrots most of my life, and want to get more, too. I also like to feed the wild birds who come to visit my house. One reason I like them so much is that they are very intelligent and obviously designed by a very clever engineer.

First, let me explain what convergence is, then we’ll look at a recent peer-reviewed scientific publication.

We have to start this Science Daily post with the definition of convergence in biology.

In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

It is the opposite of divergent evolution, where related species evolve different traits.

On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes; see long branch attraction. In cultural evolution, convergent evolution is the development of similar cultural adaptations to similar environmental conditions by different peoples with different ancestral cultures. An example of convergent evolution is the similar nature of the flight/wings of insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats.

All four serve the same function and are similar in structure, but each evolved independently.

So, naturalists say that if two organisms have traits that are similar, it must mean that the trait evolved once in their ancestors, and then the modern species inherited the trait from those ancestors. If evolution is true, the only mechanism they have to develop traits shared by two organisms is mutation and selection. The problems occur when two organisms share similar traits, but they have no recent common ancestor, and no recent shared evolutionary history of mutation and selection.

Here’s the latest study from the New Scientist:

To learn more how these birds’ brains develop, Mello and his team compared the genome of the blue-fronted Amazon parrot with that of 30 other birds. They found that regions of the parrot genome that regulate when and how genes for brain development are turned on are the same as those found in humans. These so-called ultra-conserved elements evolved in both species at different times, but with similar results.

Well, parrots and humans are completely different creatures, with no recent evolutionary history, and no recent common ancestors. So, if these changes are due to evolution, then we should see them in the very very very distance common ancestor shared by birds and humans. But then shouldn’t they be in all the other animals who descend from that very very very distant common ancestor to?

Watch this:

I’ll tell you what the real explanation is: the real explanation is that God created birds and humans. And, like a clever engineer, he re-used components that produced the behavior he wanted in his birds and his humans. We know how this works, because this is how intelligent agents write code today. Why do we need a naturalistic theory that requires magic to work, when we have a simple explanation that we can  observe every time someone writes a blog post, or some code, or anything with information in it?

Anyway, however you feel about that, try to be kind to birds, as they are much smarter and more sensitive than most people think. Put out some bird feeders in the yard, if you don’t have an outdoor cat. And if you do have a cat, then why not put a bell on it, or keep it indoors?

Related posts

New study: birds are as intelligent as macaques and other mammals

Cockatiel lets a trusted friend see her wing
Female cockatiel lets a trusted friend spread her wing for inspection

Evolution News reports on a new study about my favorite creatures of all: birds!

It says:

Next time someone calls you a birdbrain, smile and say “thank you.” Our feathered friends come well equipped with hardware and software for complex behaviors. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences puts birds on par with macaques and other mammals, and even suggests they can think.

Here’s what the news from Vanderbilt University says about the results of a detailed study by researchers primarily from the University of Prague, with additional team members from Austria, Brazil, and the United States:

The macaw has a brain the size of an unshelled walnut, while the macaque monkey has a brain about the size of a lemon. Nevertheless, the macaw has more neurons in its forebrain — the portion of the brain associated with intelligent behavior — than the macaque.

That is one of the surprising results of the first study to systematically measure the number of neurons in the brains of more than two dozen species of birds ranging in size from the tiny zebra finch to the six-foot-tall emu, which found that theyconsistently have more neurons packed into their small brainsthan are stuffed into mammalian or even primate brains of the same mass. [Emphasis added.]

How is this possible? The answer includes miniaturization and efficient packaging:

That is possible because the neurons in avian brains are much smaller and more densely packed than those in mammalian brains, the study found. Parrot and songbird brains, for example, contain about twice as many neurons as primate brains of the same mass and two to four times as many neurons as equivalent rodent brains.

Not only are neurons packed into the brains of parrots and crows at a much higher density than in primate brains, but the proportion of neurons in the forebrain is also significantly higher, the study found.

The scientists note that even despised birds like pigeons show much the same brain power. Powered flight, obviously, takes a lot of hardware and software to operate in any bird; how much so in the supreme flyers Illustra Media showed in Flight: The Genius of Birds: starlings, Arctic terns, and especially the tiny hummingbirds? […]The small heads of birds belie the observations of complex behaviors they perform.

But it’s not just routine tasks the brains must perform. Some birds can remember where they stored hundreds of seeds. Birds have been observed to hide a seed while another bird is watching, then move it when the neighbor is gone — indicative of a possible ‘theory of mind’ that shows planning and recognizing what the other bird is thinking.

The study provides a straightforward answer to a puzzle that comparative neuroanatomists have been wrestling with for more than a decade: how can birds with their small brains perform complicated cognitive behaviors?

The conundrum was created by a series of studies beginning in the previous decade that directly compared the cognitive abilities of parrots and crows with those of primates. The studies found that the birds could manufacture and use tools, use insight to solve problems, make inferences about cause-effect relationships,recognize themselves in a mirror and plan for future needs, among other cognitive skills previously considered the exclusive domain of primates.

Indeed, crows have shown the ability to solve a puzzle made famous in an Aesop’s fable (Reuters): dropping stones in a pitcher to raise the water level in order to get a drink. New Caledonian crows have shown the ability to use three tools in succession to reach a food source (BBC News). Owners of parrots know the cleverness of their pets; their ability to mimic human speech and singing is astonishing. Some cockatiels can even do the Riverdance.

I love cockatiels and green cheek conures, they are my absolute favorite birds. Absolutely adorable creatures!

Anyway, the rest of the Evolution News post notes that this intelligence is a problem for naturalistic evolution. Specifically, it’s a convergence problem – the same capabilities being evolved independently, without recent shared common ancestry. How can birds and mammals, who don’t share recent common ancestors, have evolved the same capabilities, e.g. – vocal learning pathways, by chance? There is an explanation that does explain the observations, however – common designs made by a single designer.

Related posts

New study: cameras capture wild crows using tools they made to hunt for insects

Crow using a tool he made to hunt for bugs
Crow using a tool he made to hunt for bugs

By now regular readers know that birds are my favorite creatures of all, especially parrots. Pretty much any new study about how great birds are will be blogged about here. Partly to bolster the argument for design in nature, and partly just because I think that birds are so awesome!

Here is the latest bird news from Science Daily.

Excerpt:

Scientists have been given an extraordinary glimpse into how wild New Caledonian crows make and use ‘hooked stick tools’ to hunt for insect prey.

Dr Jolyon Troscianko, from the University of Exeter, and Dr Christian Rutz, from the University of St Andrews, have captured first video recordings documenting how these tropical corvids fashion these particularly complex tools in the wild.

The pair developed tiny video ‘spy-cameras’ which were attached to the crows, to observe their natural foraging behaviour.

They discovered two instances of hooked stick tool making on the footage they recorded, with one crow spending a minute making the tool, before using it to probe for food in tree crevices and even in leaf litter on the ground.

The findings are reported in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters on Wednesday, December 23.

[…]”In one scene, a crow drops its tool, and then recovers it from the ground shortly afterwards, suggesting they value their tools and don’t simply discard them after a single use.” According to Rutz, this observation agrees with recent aviary experiments conducted by his group: “Crows really hate losing their tools, and will use all sorts of tricks to keep them safe. We even observed them storing tools temporarily in tree holes, the same way a human would put a treasured pen into a pen holder.”

New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) are found on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia.

They can use their bills to whittle twigs and leaves into bug-grabbing implements; some believe their tool-use is so advanced that it rivals that of some primates.

OK, that is pretty cool, but on crows are not the most cuddly birds. However, Goffin cockatoos are pretty cuddly, and there was a related story about them.

Goffin cockatoo using a tool he made to scoop up food through cage bars
Goffin cockatoo using a tool he made to scoop up food through cage bars

First, this one from November 2012: (Science Daily)

A cockatoo from a species not known to use tools in the wild has been observed spontaneously making and using tools for reaching food and other objects.

A Goffin’s cockatoo called ‘Figaro’, that has been reared in captivity and lives near Vienna, used his powerful beak to cut long splinters out of wooden beams in its aviary, or twigs out of a branch, to reach and rake in objects out of its reach. Researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Vienna filmed Figaro making and using these tools.

How the bird discovered how to make and use tools is unclear but shows how much we still don’t understand about the evolution of innovative behaviour and intelligence.

A report of the research is published this week in Current Biology…

And then an update to the story – a new study showing that the cockatoo is actually able to teach other birds how to make tools as well: (Science Daily)

Goffin’s cockatoos can learn how to make and use wooden tools from each other, a new study has found.

The discovery, made by scientists from Oxford University, the University of Vienna, and the Max Planck Institute at Seewiesen, is thought to be the first controlled experimental evidence for the social transmission of tool use in any bird species.

Goffin’s cockatoo (Cacatua goffini) is a curious species of Indonesian parrot not known to use tools in the wild. At a laboratory in Austria the researchers had observed a captive adult male Goffin’s cockatoo named ‘Figaro’ spontaneously start to sculpt stick tools out of wooden aviary beams to use them for raking in nuts out of his reach. To investigate if such individual invention could be passed on to other cockatoos the team used Figaro as a ‘role model’, exposing other birds to tool use demonstrations, some with Figaro as ‘teacher’ and others without his ‘students’ seeing him at work.

In the experiments one cockatoo group was allowed to observe Figaro skilfully employing a ready-made stick tool, while another could see what researchers called ‘ghost demonstrations’ — either seeing the tools displacing the nuts by themselves, while being controlled by magnets hidden under a table, or seeing the nuts moving towards Figaro without his intervention, again using magnets to displace the food. The birds were all then placed in front of an identical problem, with a ready-made tool lying on the ground nearby.

Three males and three females that saw Figaro’s complete demonstration interacted much more with potential tools and other components of the problem than those seeing ghost demos. They picked up sticks more than the ghost demo control groups and generally seemed more interested in achieving the result. Remarkably, all three males in this group acquired proficient tool use, while neither the females in the same group nor males and females in the ghost demo groups did.

A report of the research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

During the Christmas holidays, I’ve been working on a technical project that is now deployed and functioning on a cloud service, backed by a data store. One of the reasons I have been able to keep at it despite all the festivities going on, is because my pet bird has been flying and landing on top the computer monitor and urging me to get cracking on the next feature in the feature list. He is very bossy.

Related posts

New study: parrots capable of using and sharing tools

Greater vasa parrot using a tool to extract calcium
Greater vasa parrot using a tool

All right, well, awareness of my tremendous affection for all things bird-related has spread to all my friends, and now whenever there is an interesting bird study, (or funny video of owls blinking), I can expect to be informed about it.

My friend Melissa, who is doing a degree in STEM, and just got all As, sent me this new study from Science Daily.

It says:

Psychologists at the University of York and University of St Andrews have uncovered the first evidence of tool use by greater vasa parrots (Coracopsis vasa).

Studying ten captive parrots, researchers in the Department of Psychology at York observed the birds adopt a novel tool-using technique to acquire calcium from seashells and also the active sharing of tools among themselves.

The birds used small pebbles or date pits to grind calcium powder from the shells or to break off small pieces of shell to ingest. This behaviour, never before seen in this species, is the first evidence of a nonhuman using tools for grinding, and one of the few reports of nonhuman animals sharing tools directly.

Observing and filming the parrots over an eight month period (March to October), researchers documented their interactions with cockle shells on the floor of their aviary. Shells are a known source of calcium for birds.

Five out of ten birds were documented using tools, placing either pebbles or date pits inside shells to grind against the shell, or using them as a we

Yes, this is actually really important if you are a bird owner, as I am. Male parrots tend to have problems that are specific to their breed, but female parrots of any breed seem to run into this egg-laying problem where they law so many eggs, that they run out of calcium to make the eggshells. This is called “egg binding” and it can kill your bird if it’s not caught early.

Now, what do you think that a ambitious and chivalrous male parrot would do about egg binding when courting a delightful female parrot?

This:

Interest in the shells was greatest from March to mid-April, just before the breeding season — this may be due to calcium supplementation being critical for egg-laying. Researchers were therefore initially surprised to find that it was the males, not the females who showed the greatest interest in shells.

However, observation of the parrots’ breeding behaviour showed that males often engaged in regurgitative feeding of females before copulating with them, thus potentially passing on the calcium benefits.

Megan Lambert, PhD student in York’s Department of Psychology and lead author on the study, said: “The use of tools by nonhuman animals remains an exceedingly rare phenomenon. These observations provide new insights into the tool-using capabilities of parrots and give rise to further questions as to why this species uses tools.

“Tool use could reflect an innate predisposition in the parrots, or it could be the result of individual trial and error learning or some form of social learning. Whether these birds also use tools in the wild remains to be explored, but ultimately these observations highlight the greater vasa parrot as a species of interest for further studies of physical cognition.”

That’s right!

Here is a video linked in the article:

Now, do you know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of that post on love that I wrote a while back. When a man loves a woman, he tries to take away her trouble, or to take trouble for her, so that she is protected and her life is easier. He does things that will help her because he cares about her. It would be nice if more men acted like these birds, and tried to show that they cared by protecting and providing. And it would be nice if more women looked for protecting and providing, and were attracted by them.