Opinion: Birds are more intelligent than ‘bird brain’ suggests. We need to look out for their preservation

Portrait of a barn owl.STOCK

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and founder of the nonprofit organization The life you can save. David S. Wilcove is Professor of Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Public Affairs at Princeton University and author of No Way Home: the decline of the great animal migrations in the world.

Birds are found all over the world, in many different environments, from the penguins of Antarctica to the pigeons of Trafalgar Square, and from the familiar sparrows on our lawns to the great albatrosses who spend years at sea without ever touching land. There are more than 10,000 species totaling several billion wild individuals. To this must be added the tens of billions of birds that we raise for their meat or their eggs, and others that we keep as pets.

Sadly, nearly one in seven of these more than 10,000 bird species is currently threatened with extinction. Even common species are in decline. A recent study estimated that the total population of birds of all types in the United States and Canada has fallen by 30 percent since 1970.

It’s easy to dismiss their fate. The use of the term “bird brain” as an insult suggests that many people have a bad opinion of avian intelligence. But they are wrong. Irene Pepperberg’s work with Alex, a gray parrot who lived from 1976 to 2007, showed that a bird can learn concepts such as “color” and “shape”. Dr Pepperberg would show Alex a red cube and a red sphere, and ask “What’s the same?” Alex would answer “color”. When shown a red cube and a yellow cube and asked the same question, Alex would say “shape”.

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Parrots aren’t the only very intelligent birds. In 2002, Betty, a crow from New Caledonia, faced the puzzle of trying to get a piece of meat out of a tube. She bent a piece of wire and used it to hang meat and remove it, becoming not only a tool user, but a tool maker – characteristics once considered unique to humans. More recently, other Caledonian crows have shown that they can mentally represent a three-step task: picking up a small stick, bringing it in a corner to a place where it could be used to extract a stone from a tube, then take the stone around another corner to a third place where, dropping it into another tube, it would open a door and provide the raven with food.

Pigeons – often regarded with disdain by urban pedestrians – can learn to distinguish paintings by Monet and Picasso, even when shown paintings birds have never seen before. They also grouped together paintings by Cézanne and Renoir with those by Monet, and paintings by Braque and Matisse with paintings by Picasso. When Monet’s paintings are presented upside down, the pigeons fail to distinguish them from the Cubist paintings. But presenting the Picassos upside down didn’t change that.

Birds are popular pets. Budgerigars, commonly referred to as “parakeets” but also often referred to simply as “parakeets”, were first imported into Britain from their native Australia around 1840 and quickly became a hit with people. Today, they are among the most popular pets in the world. Hundreds of other species, including canaries, lovebirds, zebra finches, and a host of lesser-known species, are also kept as pets.

Unfortunately, many people who buy birds as pets treat them as living ornaments, valued for their plumage or song rather than their spirit. They have a little idea of ​​the intelligence and complexity of their new companions and are unaware of the basic requirements of care. Budgerigars, for example, live long lives (10 to 15 years if properly cared for) and are very social. Like dogs, they need a lot of individual attention and affection from their owners, as well as toys and time outside of their cages, to keep them happy while their owners are away. House. Generally, however, pet birds are allowed to interact with their owners much less than dogs or cats. And because they’re usually caged, they can’t go to their owners when they want attention.

The fact that certain types of birds can be purchased for a few dollars at a pet store without asking questions or required training is therefore not something that a welfare-conscious society should tolerate. Many birds end up in “rescue centers” for adoption, often exhibiting harmful behaviors such as plucking, which result from mistreatment.

Some simple reforms could improve the lives of pet birds. One would be to require people intending to purchase one to take an online course and pass a final exam. These reviews could be tailored for major types of pet birds, such as parrots and parakeets, as well as canaries, finches, mynahs, and other songbirds. An alternative would be to require those who sell pet birds to provide, both verbally and in writing, and before finalizing a sale, all the essential information that the buyer will need to care for his new one. pet correctly.

People can also fully enjoy birds without owning them. Birdwatching is an increasingly popular pastime around the world, offering thousands of species to see and no cages to clean. It has exploded during coronavirus shutdowns, and it appears to be holding back many of the newer followers – and often the younger ones – it picked up then.

Hope this continues. Bird watchers have long been at the forefront of efforts to protect wildlife and their habitats. Our declining wild bird populations need these efforts more than ever.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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