Bird Brains Are Far More Humanlike Than Once Thought

The avian cortex had been hiding in plain sight all along. Humans were just too birdbrained to see it

Bird Brains Are Far More Humanlike Than Once Thought
Credit: Gary Chalker Getty Images

With enough training, pigeons can distinguish between the works of Picasso and Monet. Ravens can identify themselves in a mirror. And on a university campus in Japan, crows are known to intentionally leave walnuts in a crosswalk and let passing traffic do their nut cracking. Many bird species are incredibly smart. Yet among intelligent animals, the “bird brain” often doesn’t get much respect.

Two papers published today in Science find birds actually have a brain that is much more similar to our complex primate organ than previously thought. For years it was assumed that the avian brain was limited in function because it lacked a neocortex. In mammals, the neocortex is the hulking, evolutionarily modern outer layer of the brain that allows for complex cognition and creativity and that makes up most of what, in vertebrates as a whole, is called the pallium. The new findings show that birds’ do, in fact, have a brain structure that is comparable to the neocortex despite taking a different shape. It turns out that at a cellular level, the brain region is laid out much like the mammal cortex, explaining why many birds exhibit advanced behaviors and abilities that have long befuddled scientists. The new work even suggests that certain birds demonstrate some degree of consciousness.

The mammalian cortex is organized into six layers containing vertical columns of neurons that communicate with one another both horizontally and vertically. The avian brain, on the other hand, was thought to be arranged into discrete collections of neurons called nuclei, including a region called the dorsal ventricular ridge, or DVR, and a single nucleus named the wulst.

In one of the new papers, senior author Onur Güntürkün, a neuroscientist at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, and his colleagues analyzed regions of the DVR and wulst involved in sound and vision processing. To do so, they used a technology called three-dimensional polarized light imaging, or 3D-PLI—a light-based microscopy technique that can be employed to visualize nerve fibers in brain samples. The researchers found that in both pigeons and barn owls, these brain regions are constructed much like our neocortex, with both layerlike and columnar organization—and with both horizontal and vertical circuitry. They confirmed the 3D-PLI findings using biocytin tracing, a technique for staining nerve cells.

[In a Scientific American article, Güntürkün describes how the avian brain demonstrates surprising cognitive abilities.]

“We can now claim that this layered, corticallike organization is indeed a feature of the whole sensory forebrain in most, if not all, birds,” says Martin Stacho, co-lead author of the study and Güntürkün’s colleague at Ruhr University Bochum.

“It’s not that the DVR is the neocortex,” says Vanderbilt University neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, who wrote a commentary accompanying the two new papers and was not involved in either of them, “but rather that the whole of the pallium in mammals and in birds has similar developmental origins and connectivity, and therefore [the pallia of both classes] should be considered equivalent structures. Stacho shows that settling for what the naked eye sees can be misleading.”

The idea that the DVR was somehow related to the neocortex was proposed in the 1960s by neuroscientist Harvey Karten. Yet it didn’t stick. Others subsequently claimed the DVR actually corresponded with other mammalian brain regions, including the amygdala, which, among other tasks, carries out the processing of emotion. “The theory about a DVR [correlation] has been possibly one of the biggest disputes in the field of comparative neurobiology,” Stacho says. But his new work lends credibility to Karten’s original hypothesis.

Stacho and his colleagues think the findings also represent a glimpse into ancient animal brain evolution. The last common ancestor of birds and mammals was a reptile that roamed the earth around 320 million years ago. And its brain, the team believes, was probably a precursor to that of the two lineages that diverged through evolution. “Nobody knows how exactly the brain of the last common ancestor looked like,” Stacho says. “Most likely, it wasn’t like the neocortex or the DVR. It was probably something in between that, in mammals, developed to a six-layered neocortex and, in birds, to the wulst and DVR.”

The other new paper, by a group at the University of Tübingen in Germany, lends still more insight into the avian brain, suggesting that birds have some ability for sensory consciousness—subjective experiences in which they recall sensory experiences. Consciousness has long been thought to be localized in the cerebral cortex of smart primates—namely, chimps, bonobos and us humans. Yet crows appear to have at least a rudimentary form of sensory consciousness.

In the Tübingen group’s experiment, two carrion crows were trained to recall a previous experience to guide their behavior. When their training was completed, they went through a testing phase in which a gray square might appear followed by either a red or blue square 2.5 seconds later. In this exercise, the crows were trained to move their head if they saw a gray square and then a red one. And they learned to keep their head still if they saw a gray square and then a blue one. When the birds saw no stimulus followed by the appearance of a colored square, the sequence was reversed: blue signaled them to move their head, and red told them not to. So to correctly respond to the colored squares, the crows had to recall whether or not they had seen a gray one first—equating to a past subjective experience.

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It was crucial to the experiment to present the gray square in six different intensities, including at the threshold of the birds’ perception. This way, lead author and neurobiologist Andreas Nieder and his colleagues could confirm that the crows were not simply carrying out conditioned responses to stimuli but instead drawing on a subjective experience.

Further, by implanting electrodes in an avian brain region called the nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL), the researchers were able to monitor activity of individual neurons in response to the stimuli. When the crows viewed a dim gray square at their perceptual threshold, NCL neurons became active in the period between that stimulus and the presentation of a colored square—but only if the crows reported seeing the gray one. If they could not detect that square, the neurons remained silent. This result suggests a unique subjective experience was being manifested through neuronal activity.

Nieder does not claim crows have the self-conscious existence and self-awareness of apes but simply that the birds can partake in a unique, multipart sensory experience in response to a stimulus. “I am generally not a big fan of ascribing complex humanlike cognitive states to animals and prefer to maintain a conservative attitude,” he says. “Humans easily start to project their own mental states to other living (or even nonliving) beings. But in terms of sensory consciousness in other species, it is probably fair to assume that advanced vertebrates, such as mammals and birds, possess it.”

Nieder’s team’s findings suggest that the neural underpinnings of sensory consciousness either were in place before mammals evolved or developed independently in both lineages—with the avian line showing that being conscious does not necessarily depend on a bulky cerebral cortex.

Work by Herculano-Houzel demonstrates that the brains of corvids—members of a family of so-called “smart birds” such as crows, ravens and magpies—are very densely populated with interconnected neurons. Her studies jibe with the new Science papers. “With Güntürkün’s findings that pallium connectivity is indeed very similar between birds and mammals…, it all comes together very nicely,” she says, pointing out that the corvid pallium holds about as many neurons as you’d find in primates with a much larger brain.

This latest research also undercuts primate exceptionalism. “I hope that more people will be tempted to drop the notion that there is something very unique and exclusive about the human brain,” Herculano-Houzel says.

A pigeon that can’t fly befriended a puppy that can’t walk. Yes, it’s as cute as it sounds

Lundy (left) and Herman (right) are friends. Yes, they're a chihuahua and pigeon, respectively, but the species barrier hasn't stopped them from snuggling up at their Rochester, New York, rescue.

(CNN)Meet Herman and Lundy, recent cuddle buddies and rescue animals.

The two are an unlikely pair: Herman, a pigeon, suffered neurological damage more than a year ago. He can’t fly. Little Lundy, a newborn chihuahua puppy, can’t use his back legs.
But stick them together, and the two will snuggle up as though they were members of the same litter — or nest.
The two met through the Mia Foundation, a rescue organization in Rochester, New York, that rehabilitates animals with birth defects and physical deformities. Sue Rogers, the nonprofit’s founder, sends most of her rescues to foster homes around the US but keeps a few of them for school programs about bullying.
Their interspecies friendship has inspired scores of supporters to donate to the foundation. And the animals, Rogers said, make each other better.

Two rough beginnings

Herman was found over a year ago in a car dealership parking lot, where he sat on the pavement, unmoving, for three whole days. Eventually his rescuers realized the poor pigeon couldn’t fly.
Neighboring wildlife rescues said he couldn’t be rehabilitated and would need to be euthanized, so Rogers took care of him herself.
He now rests in a baby crib for some of the day, but she takes him outside daily to stimulate him.
Little Lundy, an infant chihuahua, is a new arrival. His breeders in South Carolina sent him to Rogers because he had trouble using his hind legs, a condition known as swimmers syndrome.
At just 6 ounces, he was small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Rogers said she suspects Lundy’s difficulty walking is due to damage to his teeny spinal cord.

When Lundy met Herman

The two were bound to meet eventually. Rogers set them together while attending to Lundy and saw the way the two snuggled up almost immediately — Herman didn’t peck, and Lundy didn’t nibble.

Rogers snapped some pictures of their cuddles. The “oohs” and “ahhs” followed soon after.
People from every corner of the world flooded Rogers’ inbox with donations, messages of support and, naturally, pleas to adopt Lundy or the other cute pups in her care.
“I was blown away,” she said.
And the donations keep coming — the foundation raised $6,000 in two days, she said. That’s enough to cover the high-end cost of a veterinary surgery that many of her rescue animals require.

Lundy needs to get stronger to be adoptable

Herman will likely stay in Rogers’ care for the rest of his life. She’s hopeful Lundy stays strong and survives.
“With animals born with defects, there’s a chance we could lose them,” she said. “So we don’t want to make anyone really excited. But now I think we’ve gotten a thousand emails asking, ‘Please, don’t ever separate those two!'”
One of Lundy’s rescuers fell in love with him while traveling with him to Rochester, so he may already have a new home lined up. The question, then, is if Herman will ask to tag along too.

Officials hunt for suspected pigeon killer after 40 found dead in Somerset

AT RISK: The dead birds showed no obvious injuries or signs of disease, leading to suspicions there was a pigeon poisoner on the loose

AT RISK: The dead birds showed no obvious injuries or signs of disease, leading to suspicions there was a pigeon poisoner on the loose

OFFICIALS in Somerset are hunting a suspected bird poisoner after more than 40 pigeons were killed – including some that fell out of the sky dead.

Investigators including police and the RSPCA are looking into a spate of dead pigeons in Wells and say it is possible they were poisoned.

The birds started appearing in the High Street and beyond at the end of July – on roads, pavements and in people’s gardens.

The birds showed no obvious injuries or signs of disease, leading to suspicions there was a pigeon poisoner in the city.

As many as 40 dead birds have been reported.

One woman found three in her garden and there there was even a report of one falling out of the sky and landing on a woman carrying a coffee.

It was suggested the birds might have been suffering from “pigeon canker”, a disease prevalent during the breeding season.

But autopsy carried out voluntarily vets proved ‘inconclusive’.

Wells City Councillor Celia Wride said: “I must say poisoning was my immediate reaction at the time.

“If this is a case of somebody putting down some killer feed for them we need to find out and do something about it. This is not the way to go about things.”

The matter has been referred to the police who passed it on to Natural England, the Government quango that advises the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on conservation and wildlife.

Natural England passed the matter onto the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which has responsibility through the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme.

It is an offence to injure or kill a wild bird under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, except under licence, and offenders can face an unlimited fine and/or six months imprisonment.

Tests for bird flu and West Nile Virus carried out by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) proved negative.

A spokesman for the HSE said: “While HSE are unable to confirm the range of tests carried out by APHA as part of this post-mortem, the report provided did not state a view that disease was responsible for the pigeons’ deaths.”

Further analysis of tissue samples is currently being carried out by Fera Science Limited to determine if pesticides were used. This can take up to eight weeks.

If the toxicological report does indicate pesticide use, this information will be considered along with the field investigation report to try to identify whether the exposure took place from an approved use or not.

If abuse is suspected, then the information will be referred back to the police who are responsible for catching the pigeon poisoner.

A spokesperson for the RSPCA said: “We are not sure what has happened, but we believe they may have been poisoned.

“The pigeons were taken to a vet by a member of the public and post mortems carried out.”

As well as being a deliberate act of poisoning the spokesperson said any potential source could also include poisonous substances not being safely stowed away.

Anyone with information that might help with the investigations is asked to call the RSPCA on 0300 123 8018 in confidence.

Pigeons to be discussed at Lithgow Council meeting

UNWANTED RESIDENT: A plan to try and reduce pigeon numbers will go before council next Monday night. Picture: SUPPLIED.

 UNWANTED RESIDENT: A plan to try and reduce pigeon numbers will go before council next Monday night. Picture: SUPPLIED.

Councillors will discuss the best way to take back Lithgow’s CBD from a flighty foe at the council meeting on Monday, July 23.

A report on the issue of pigeons inhabiting buildings around Lithgow’s Main Street has come to council, recommending council conduct an education program informing business owners how to discourage pigeons from living on their property.

It summarised a variety of strategies used to manage pigeon populations including shooting, trapping and exclusion strategies like destroying nests and making sure all bins are lidded.

“In recent years it has become evident that the pigeon population in the Lithgow CBD area has increased to nuisance levels particularly evident in warmer months,” the report states.

“Whilst the responsibilities for pigeon control will mostly fall to private property owners, the management of feral pigeons in the central business district (CBD) is an issue that needs to be explored.”

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It stated that Bathurst Council had instigated a joint management campaign with business owners, which involved setting traps (council contributed half of the cost of traps) and shooting programs at night with an air rifle four times a year.

Lithgow Council staff estimated that such a program would cost $1000 for each business in the Lithgow CBD that implements trapping, and from then on $6000 per year for the quarterly shooting program.

“Both participation and financial contribution by private property owners would be central to any program succeeding,” the report stated.

“However, in current economic circumstances gaining that ‘buy in’ may be a challenge.

“Council participation in preparing a strategy and conducting programs would also be a challenge based on limited financial and staff resources.”

The report suggests council carry out a “limited program” consisting of an education campaign, “to advise property owners on techniques such as exclusion (netting, bird spikes, gutter guards); nest destruction; covering bins; and refraining from feeding pigeons.”

Councillors will vote on the recommendation on Monday, July 23, at the council meeting.

Inhofe Ends Pigeon Shoot, Animal Rights Group Celebrates

Inhofe Ends Pigeon Shoot, Animal Rights Group Celebrates

Posted: Aug 23, 2017 3:47 AM PDT Updated: Aug 23, 2017 5:00 AM PDT

Senator Jim Inhofe announced the end of his annual wild pigeon, a cause for celebration for an animal rights group. The outdoor fundraiser had been the target of a multi-year campaign by Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, or SHARK, which alleged the event was cruel.

In a series of emails obtained by the group, a staffer from Sen. Inhofe’s office wrote in January to Oklahoma Department of Wildlife game wardens, “I am happy to let you know that this year, and going forward, we are going to halt the ‘old world pigeon shoot.”

Another email read, “I know this event has caused some tension in the past, so I hope this move will allow us to rebuild those relationships.”

The shoot had come under criticism for allegedly using tagged pigeons that were hand thrown in the air, instead of hunting wild ones.

In a statement, Inhofe campaign spokesman Luke Holland said:

The Inhofe campaign has long held a very successful dove hunt event each year. In a few recent years, the event has included a pigeon shoot. This year we will not have that component of the event and will return to our traditional format; we expect it to be a record year and hope everyone who attends has a wonderful time.

Animal Protection Group Shuts Down US Senator Inhofe’s Pigeon Shoot

– Pigeon Supplier Leaves with Crates of Live Pigeons

LONE WOLF, OK – SHowing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) shut down a live pigeon shoot fundraiser held Friday afternoon by US Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the international animal protection group reported. SHARK said it will also monitor an Inhofe Dove Hunt Saturday if it goes on as scheduled.

According to SHARK, the story begins at the Quartz Mountain Lodge in Lone Wolf, OK, which was the sign-in location for Senator Inhofe’s pigeon shoot.  Activists followed the procession of vehicles when they left the lodge to go to the shooting area.  The Inhofe party went through extreme measures to lose SHARK, including driving the rear cars at extremely slow speeds on the highway to block the activists.

Inhofe’s team successfully lost the activists – except for one car, which eventually led the rest of the activists to the shoot, which was located down 10 miles of washboard dirt roads. The shoot site was located off of N2113 road in Lone Wolf.

Once SHARK launched its Angel drone, the shooting of birds stopped. Almost immediately vehicles started leaving. A trickle quickly became a flood, as was video documented. This included the person who supplied the pigeons. He left with many still living birds in his vehicle. The entire pigeon shoot was over.

“This a major victory,” said SHARK President Steve Hindi. “In 2014, when our investigator was at the event undercover, the shoot lasted more than an hour and forty-five minutes and there were ten shooting stations. This year there were only six shooting stations and the shoot was only about forty-five minutes long. All of this represents a dramatic reduction in shooters and time spent killing since SHARK first exposed Inhofe’s cruel fundraiser. Clearly the pressure is on Inhofe and we will not be letting up.”

I Was an Animal Experimenter


How did it happen? How did I go from being a high school student who played in a rock band to a mad scientist conducting cruel animal experiments?

To this day, I’m not sure. As a child, I liked animals. Growing up, I loved playing with our family dog. I wasn’t particularly interested in science and didn’t even want to go to college. I was planning on making it big as a rock musician, but in 1966, when my band broke up and a college offered me a generous financial aid package, I found myself a depressed, bewildered freshman at a university. I wanted to study music, but without classical training, that door was closed.


At the end of freshman year, my roommate told me about a great psychology course he was taking where he studied B. F. Skinner’s experiments with rats and pigeons. I was amazed that someone was actually able to predict and control behavior. Why people behaved as they did had always been a mystery to me. So I decided to take the course.

I was fascinated by one class lab where we taught pigeons to peck at a colored disc for food. In my junior year, I attended a class in which the professor made a compelling argument for conducting animal research related to punishment. He promoted it as having the noble goal of finding ways to minimize the use of punishment in humans while maximizing its effect. When he announced he was looking for a student to work in his lab for class credit, I took the job.

First, I had to learn how to shock a pigeon. A graduate student demonstrated how one person held the pigeon upside down while the other plucked out the feathers in back of its legs, cut two lengths of stiff stainless steel wire from a spool and pushed them through the skin and under the pelvic bones. The wires were then soldered to a harness placed on the pigeon’s back. The harness contained a plug that would be connected to a source of electric shock during experiments. No anesthetic or sedative was used.

One day, while programming an experiment, I accidentally touched the electrodes and got a jolting shock that numbed my entire arm. I was amazed that, according to my professor, the shock level was the correct one to use for pigeons. I told myself that pigeons must not feel pain as much as I did.

The pigeons lived in individual wire cages about a cubic foot in volume, in a bleak, windowless cinder-block room. I was told that everyone had to take a turn killing the pigeons after the experiments were finished. A graduate student showed me how to dump a couple of dozen birds into a clear plastic garbage bag, then pour a splash of chloroform on them and tie the bag shut. I remember the first and only time I did the killing; I thought the birds on the bottom were already suffocating because they were completely buried in other birds.

In graduate school, and later as a research technician, I also conducted punishment experiments on rats. The rats were deprived of food or water for 23 hours each day so they would be motivated to press a lever or lick a tube to receive a small reward of food or water. After learning that behavior, they would be shocked through metal rods on the floor for pressing the lever or licking the tube. We were recording how much the pressing or licking was suppressed by the shock.

Each year dozens of animals would be brought into the lab to live their brief lives suffering deprivation and shocks before being killed. At least in graduate school and as a research technician I did not have to kill the animals. There was a full-time lab custodian who took care of that.

As I look back on this nearly 50 years later,…


Ask Ducks Unlimited to Cancel Cruel Live Pigeon Shoot

March 3, 2015
Ask Ducks Unlimited to Cancel Cruel Live Pigeon Shoot

Last year, SHARK exposed a horrifically cruel live pigeon shoot that was to be held as a fundraiser for the Prior Lakes, Minnesota chapter of Ducks Unlimited. We made THIS ( video calling out Ducks Unlimited. To its credit, Ducks Unlimited quickly shut the shoot down and replaced it with a clay target shoot.

Ducks Unlimited Senior Communications Specialist Matt Coffey explained the shutdown this way:

“We have policies in place holding our staff and local volunteers to high ethical and moral standards, and do not condone wanton waste of wildlife or other animals. To avoid the potential for wanton waste, the event committee has decided to change the live pigeon event to a sporting clays shoot.”

Sadly, the Prior Lakes chapter of Ducks Unlimited is planning another pigeon shoot for March 19th. SHARK is again asking Ducks Unlimited’s national leaders to shut this down before 2,000 innocent birds are shot, wounded, crippled and viciously killed.

Here is the flyer for the shoot. Note how event organizers are calling it a “driven hunt.” They claim they are “harvesting” the pigeons and that they will be given to people to eat. US Senator James Inhofe tried to spin his cruel pigeon shoot the same way last year, but we exposed that as a lie in THIS ( video.

Let’s hope that the national leaders of Ducks Unlimited have more integrity than those in the Prior Lakes chapter.

Please call and write to Ducks Unlimited and politely ask that they follow their own standards and stop this horror before it happens. Let them know that if this slaughter takes place, then Ducks Unlimited reputation will be forever stained. Please let us know of any response you receive.

Dale Hall
(901) 758-3825

Matt Coffey
Senior Communications Specialist
(901) 758-3764

Long-awaited pigeon shoot ban set for Senate vote

Amid the frenzy of hefty budget bills moving in the Pennsylvania legislature comes a long awaited piece of legislation aimed at protecting the small feathered creatures.


Wildlife Photography Copyright Jim Robertson

Wildlife Photography Copyright Jim Robertson

The bill – set to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning – would make it illegal to shoot live pigeons launched from spring-loaded boxes, ending a practice animal welfare advocates call barbaric, but the National Rifle Association and those who participate in in it call a “shooting sport tradition.”

The bill has never made to a full floor vote in either chamber despite more than 20 years of effort. This time though the Senate Majority leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) has signed on as a cosponsor of the bill.

The language from a House bill sponsored by Rep. John Maher (R., Allegheny) is set to be amended to a bill (HB1750) banning the consumption of dogs and cats.

The furor over pigeon shoots dates back three decades to the mass protests over the Hegins pigeon shoot, the weekend-long bacchanal in Schuylkill County where thousands of birds were slaughtered.The carnage drew national attention and lawsuits and the club ended the shoots at Hegins.

 Dueling action alerts were send to members of the NRA and the Humane Society of the United States. The NRA said it is fighting to protect  has launched a fight to preserve what it calls a “shooting sport tradition” while the HSUS urged its members to call their Senators and ask them to support the bill.

The NRA says “outside animal rights extremists” are to blame for the controversy but the HSUS points to its tens of thousands of supporters on Facebook who want the practice banned in the handful of clubs – including the Philadelphia Gun Club – that still host pigeon shoots.

Animal welfare advocates say hundreds of wounded birds suffer slow deaths because they are not humanely destroyed.

At a “tower”: shoot at Wing Pointe Resort in Berks County – where birds are stuffed in a box and flushed out while hunters stand in a circle and shoot them – I witnessed wounded birds unlucky enough to survive within range of the young “trapper boys” being corralled, thrown to the ground and stomped on.

Attempts to bring cruelty charges against gun clubs have failed as local judges have ruled the shoots are legal until they outlawed by the legislature.

The NRA is waging a counter attack in the House where it is backing a bill by Rep. Mark Keller (R., Perry) that would legislate their legality by placing them under the regulation of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The game commission has said it does not consider the activity to constitute a “fair chase.”