Naming the Bird Brain


A crow bird
By Linda Tanner [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Joshua Leo and Liz Waid look at an unusual project by scientists. They worked to bring justice to the study of birds' brains.

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Transcript


Voice 1

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Joshua Leo.

Voice 2

And I’m Liz Waid. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1

Have you heard the expression, ‘bird brain?’ It is not a nice term! People use it as an insult. Calling someone a bird brain is like calling someone stupid. It means they have a small brain! Of course, compared to humans, birds do have small brains. But is it also true that birds are stupid?

Voice 2

In 1903, German scientist Ludvig Edinger drew a picture of the bird’s brain. And he defined the different parts. He used names with Latin roots. But the Latin words made it sound like the birds could not learn. They included words like ‘primitive’, meaning simple or not as intelligent. The names made the birds sound stupid.

Voice 1

Nature and science books used these terms for over 100 years. But, Erich Jarvis has worked to change all this. He is a scientist who studies the human brain. As part of his work, he also studies bird brains. And he has led an effort to re-write the scientific names! Jarvis and other scientists believe that birds’ brains are far more complex than people originally thought. And he set out to bring justice to the bird brain!

Voice 2

Here is one example of the amazing things birds can do. In 2005, scientists at Oxford University performed a series of experiments. They were testing the brain of a black crow. They put meat at the bottom of a thin tube. They placed a thin straight piece of wire on the top of the tube. Would the bird use the wire to get the food? Rena Dam describes the birds’ reaction.

Voice 5

The crow looks at the meat. She moves around the tube. Then, she gets the wire in her beak, her mouth. She pushes the wire into the tube. But, the wire is straight. It cannot reach the food. So, the crow takes the wire out of the tube. She pushes the end of the wire against the wall. The wire bends. Then, the bird goes to the tube. She puts the bent wire into the tube. The food attaches to the bent end of the wire. She has succeeded! She eats her reward - the meat!

Voice 2

The scientists perform the same experiment ten times. In nine out of the ten times the bird made an effective tool from the wire. Harvey Karten is one of the scientists who worked with Erich Jarvis. He told the television program NOVA:

Voice 3

“We had not even considered that birds were that able!”

Voice 1

But over past years, scientists have learned that birds are far more able than they first thought. In the past, scientists believed that birds’ brains were mostly ‘instinctual’. That is, birds did not think before they acted. Their actions were based on their built-in, natural urges. But now, scientists know that this is not true. Birds’ brains are much more complicated. The cortex is the outer brain shell. It is responsible for controlling some complex behaviour. Scientists used to think that songbirds only had a very small, thin cortex. But now they know that the opposite is true. Some songbirds can teach and learn thousands of different calls. This is called ‘vocal’ or ‘spoken’ learning. It is the same communication that makes human language possible.

Voice 2

Erich Jarvis is working to understand how scientists can use discoveries into the bird’s brain. He hopes to help understanding of human language. He hopes that his work will lead to treatments for complex human speech problems. In an interview with the television program NOVA, Jarvis said,

Voice 4

“We want to learn about bird brains so that we can understand how our own brains work. This is for public health, for diseases like Alzheimers’ and Parkinsons’. This is more than just bird stuff. It is important to get it right.”

Voice 1

This is why Jarvis decided to rename bird brain structures. He said that he and other scientists were studying complex bird behaviours. But they were using words that were not modern. The words made it seem like the birds were not intelligent. Jarvis said they had students who did not want to study the bird brain. The terms made bird brains sound uninteresting. The general public could not understand why the bird brain was worth studying. So, the names were important!

Voice 2

But what is the big deal about changing a few names? How difficult can it be? Well, it is more difficult than you may think. It is a little like trying to change all the names in a town. And then asking the people living there to come and discuss it! But Jarvis did not give in! He sat with the scientists as they argued and debated. Jarvis was a good leader. He permitted everyone to have his or her say. He made sure people listened. He listened. And, finally, a result! All the scientists agreed on the new names. Publishers printed the new scientific papers.

Voice 1

During this time, some people criticised Jarvis for his actions. They said that he should have been working on publishing his own papers. He should have been thinking about his individual success. Leading an effort like this did not help his research. But Jarvis believes that working together is often the only way forward. He explained to NOVA:

Voice 4

“It was not easy. But I felt that it was necessary. It was the right and moral thing to do.”

Voice 2

At the end of the meeting, the group took a picture of all the scientists involved. At first, the 28 scientists just stood together. Erich Jarvis stood in the middle. But then, he stopped. The picture was not quite complete. He asked all the scientists to join hands! He told NOVA,

Voice 4

“This shows the rest of the scientific community that we are united in this.”

Voice 1

Because of this work, Erich Jarvis was awarded the 2005 science pioneer award. The U-S National Institutes of Health, or NIH, gives this highly respected award. The NIH recognised that Jarvis’ work could make great changes in the areas of human health.

Voice 2

So not everyone criticised Jarvis’ effort! And he continues to study the complex workings of the bird brain. He hopes that his work will result in a greater understanding of human behaviour. And, science will be able to offer more help to people with learning or speech problems. Who would have thought that a bird brain contained so many scientific discoveries! Calling someone a bird brain may not be an insult after all!

Voice 1

The writer of this program was Marina Santee. The producer was Rena Dam. The voices you heard were from the United States. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can find our programs on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called ‘Naming the Bird Brain’.

Voice 2

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

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Question:

Do you think it is important to study animals? Are scientific names important?

Comments


Avatar Spotlight
Satoshi
said on August 21, 2011

Yes,birds are intelligent…I have a bird.He is intelligent too.he flies around the world and knows many things.I enjoy listening to his interesting stories with a sweet song.He is now in a cage called a MP3 player.And his name is Spotlight.I love and thank him very much.

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ptquan
said on September 19, 2012

In my opinion ! The birds have their intelligent and instinctual. The expert in this program made a experiment with back crow. The bird may use natural urges. Some people said that ” bird brain”, they should read this useful material for more knowledge about science. Thanks spotlight for a meaningful program.

Luis Piedra's avatar
Luis Piedra
said on September 19, 2012

The birds are magnificent animals. His inteligent is very impressive.

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juan Reyes
said on September 22, 2012

This article is so important, I think the bird is going growing in knowledge everyday, according of the time. In the past I have seen how the bird hit the laying electricity, but now it is not happen anymore. Birds are intelligent and friendly. thank you and God bless you, Juan Pastor

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Mfred
said on February 19, 2020

In Italy, where I live, scientists should also take care of hens, because, to insult a person, it is customary to say that he has the brain of a hen. I could tell a fact about animal intelligence, which I witnessed last summer, which surprised me but I don’t know how important it is. I saw a small dog who was given hazelnuts that he had learned to break to eat the inside and throw the shell.

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Honneur
said on February 19, 2020

This was a great program. Men are so selfish that they cannot understand natural languages. They think they are the only species, with the ability, power and intelligence to subdue the world, but this is not true and the actions of the crow mentioned are evidence of this, no doubt. I don’t like academic formalism very much, but some order is needed to standardize knowledge.