Children in Yorkshire, England, are being instructed on how to avoid seagull muggings, BBC News reported. The aggressive birds are foraging for food and protecting their chicks. Bird behavior is far more complex than we once believed.
According to the BBC article, bird attacks in Yorkshire’s towns of Scarborough and Whitby have spiked in recent years. This has caused city councils to send staff members to schools to explain to students why the gulls are attacking. Some believe it may be linked to the fishing industry, arguing that dozens of trawlers used to feed fish to the gulls, making them dependent on free food. In July, a gull in Devon even plucked a chihuahua from a family’s yard and flew off with it. While the phrase “bird-brained” is known as an insult to one’s intelligence, our feathered friends offer more than meets the eye.
Bird-Brained: The Midbrain and Hindbrain
Comparing the avian brain to the mammalian brain yields surprising results worth looking at by sections—the forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain. “The midbrain of birds is dominated by big optic lobes and controls vision,” said Dr. Bruce E. Fleury, Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. “This differs from mammals, whose optic nerves are mapped out on an area of the cerebral cortex called the visual cortex.”
Despite this difference, mammals and birds have similar hindbrains, which house the cerebellum and the medulla. “The cerebellum integrates muscular control and coordination, and the medulla interfaces the spinal cord and the brain,” Dr. Fleury said. Although the cerebellum performs the same function in birds and humans, it’s more important in birds.
According to Dr. Fleury, “Zipping around over the ground and through the treetops requires tremendous visual and muscular coordination. And birds have the added task of coordinating extra input on feather position and feather elevation from sensory feathers like filoplumes.”
In other words, there are several areas of the avian hindbrain that must work together—and at times, faster and harder than the human brain—to achieve flight, which mankind has dreamed of for thousands of years.
Bird-Brained: The Forebrain
Dr. Fleury pointed out that the forebrain manages complex learned behavior and intelligence, and the “grey matter” we speak of in the forebrain is called the pallium. In mammals, the pallium has evolved into a large cerebral cortex, which birds lack. Additionally, he said, two-thirds of mammals’ forebrains consist of flat sheets of cells arranged in six intricate layers—just the bottom one-third is a mess of clusters of cells. In birds, however, nearly the whole forebrain consists of such clusters.
“Recent research shows that the clusters of nerve cells in the avian pallium, once thought to be primitive, function much like the flat sheets of neurons in our cerebral cortex,” Dr. Fleury said. “Songbirds, parrots, and crows have neuron densities up to three to four times their density in the primate brain.”
Additionally, the hippocampus—the part of the forebrain devoted to spatial memory—is incredibly developed in birds. Dr. Fleury said that birds have an amazing ability to remember where they keep things. “Clark’s Nutcracker, for example, can remember the locations of 2,000 or more seed caches for up to eight or nine months,” he said.
Birds daily defy their reputations as stupid creatures. Their memories and flight instincts are incredible—and in the cases of bird muggings in Yorkshire and chihuahua stealing in Devon, they’re remarkably assertive and exhibit survival instincts in front of people.
Dr. Bruce E. Fleury contributed to this report. Dr. Fleury is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. He earned a B.A. from the University of Rochester in Psychology and General Science, and an M.A. in Library, Media, and Information Studies from the University of South Florida.