Robert Cloudsley, of Napier, asks :-

I drive a lot, and have noticed that almost every bird flies away immediately on the sound of an approaching vehicle. Generally, most birds frighten easily, but Mynah birds don’t. On the road they seem to know how far they need to move from a vehicle and go that far only. Around town they will stand less than a metre away from moving cars. Does this mean they are capable of reason and judgment or is it just instinct?

Isabel Castro, an ecologist at Massey University's Institute of Agriculture and Environment, responded.

Most likely, when someone refers to you as “bird-brain”, they are not praising your brain capacity. However, observations by researchers and pet-bird owners show that birds are capable of reasoning, judging and learning, actions related to intelligence.

One reason for viewing birds as ‘stupid’ is their ‘small’ heads and brains; another is comparing their brain structure to that of mammals. We are short-sighted on both accounts. In general, bird brains are small simply because most birds are small animals. Nonetheless, if we examine the size of their brain in relation to body size we find that several bird groups have brains that are larger than expected for their size (i.e. kiwi and kakapo); and definitively all have brain to body size ratios comparable to those of mammals.

The brains of birds don’t have the distinctive convolutions of human brains; instead they have a smooth surface. However, the cells in both types of brains are comparable genetically and physiologically. Erich Jarvis, a world’s expert in bird brains from Duke University Medical Center, says: “…evolution has created more than one way to generate complex behaviour: the mammal way and the bird way. In fact, some birds have evolved cognitive abilities that are far more complex than in many mammals."

This is especially evident in social birds like crows and parrots, which are known to be ‘smart’ and able to find solutions to complicated problems. In New Zealand we have the honour of having a bird considered by many as the smartest: the kea. These parrots are able to work out how to get food out of a container even as scientists increase the level of difficulty needed to achieve this feat.

Next time someone calls you ‘bird brain’, don’t get upset; rather try thinking like a bird to defeat your opponent.