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Not so bird-brained after all

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Nature Watch birds
Birds and humans may have more in common than it might appear, with research conducted in Italy discovering that birds count from left to right, just like humans do.

Rosa Rugani and her colleagues at the University of Trento, Italy, published the findings of an experiment to train domestic chicks to find food rewards in Biology Letters. Chicks (Gallus gallus) and nutcracker birds (Nucifraga columbiana) were trained to find food rewards by pecking at the fourth or sixth food dispenser in a straight line of sixteen. The placement of the line of dispensers was then altered by 90°, giving the birds a choice of starting at the left or right end of the line. Both nutcracker birds and domestic chickens showed a preference for pecking at the dispensers fourth and sixth from the left. In humans, the right hemisphere of the brain is associated with visual and spatial tasks, and governs the left field of vision. It may be that similar brain structure in birds makes counting from left to right instinctive, rather than learned, suggest the researchers.

Karin Cox, author of Amazing Facts about Australian Birds and the newly released Nature Watch: Birds says she’s not surprised by the findings of another similarity between humans and birds. “Although humans are mammals, and of course there are several major differences between the classes Aves and Mammalia, while writing these books for Steve Parish Publishing I came across many similarities between bird and human behaviour. Several bird species, for instance, pair bond for life and mate monogamously, which shows a high parental investment in offspring, similar to how many humans conduct their relationships. Of course, others are ‘single parents’. Like humans, birds have also been shown to use tools. One Australian bird, the Black-breasted Buzzard (Hamirostra melanosternon) has been widely observed picking up rocks and throwing them at other birds eggs to smash them and eat them, and several species in the Corvid family of Crows and Ravens are known to use similar tactics,” says Cox.

Also take into account the close bonds that form between some captive birds and their owners, particularly Australian parrots like the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and budgerigars, both of which even replicate human sounds, as does the male Superb Lyrebird, which uses song and dance to attract a female partner. “Not so dissimilar to blokes out at a nightclub,” Cox suggests. “Of course there are many differences, too,” she qualifies, “even aside from the obvious ones of beaks and feathers. Owls, for instance, can’t roll or swivel their eyes so they have to turn their heads to see, but of course they have excellent hearing so can pinpoint movement using that alone. And birds are much better at using oxygen in the body and at regulating body temperature than humans are.”

When developing the Nature Watch range, designed for children from three years and up, Cox admits that her primary objective was to draw comparisons between birds and humans to highlight the similarities. “In the past, it used to be considered bad science writing to ‘anthropomorphize’, or bestow human qualities or concepts on animals,” Cox admits, “but for very young children, it’s a great way of getting them to see just how evolution has occurred, even between classes of animals, and of getting them to think about concepts like flight, the difference between fur and feathers, and the way animals live their lives. So, throughout the Nature Watch series, we deliberately draw attention to things humans and animals do similarly and to what they do differently, whether that is in body structure and function or behaviour. Birds are actually very intelligent animals too,” she enthuses, “so the term bird-brained is certainly wrong and as this study shows, they probably have a secrets left to knock us off our perch.”

The Nature Watch range of ten books aimed at young readers from 3+ is available from all good book stores or online from Steve Parish Publishing at www.steveparish.com.au

Nature Watch Titles include: Birds, Mammals, Fish, Baby Animals, Dangerous Animals, Reptile, Animal Homes, Insects, Things to Make and Do and Outdoor Activities.

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