From My WindowIssue Date: June 21, 2018
Bird Brains " Not Such a Joke After All!
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,
There is a lot going on in my life right now, so it is probably understandable that I have had some moments of "brain freeze." I mean the kind of situations where I walk into a room knowing I was on a "mission," but when my feet tell me I have arrived at my destination, my brain no longer remembers what my mission was. If I stop and think for a minute, I do recall what I was intent on doing.
It astonishes me what I DO remember. Our cable TV has stations that just play music. One of the channels is music from the 1970's, the period of my youth. It plays top 40 songs, but also more obscure selections from that time period. I very seldom fail to recognize a song, and usually can sing along with most of it. The melody and lyrics come back to me unbidden, even though I am sure I have not heard the tune in decades. WHY is my brain so extraordinarily good at things like this, while at other times I can't even remember why I opened a kitchen cabinet?
Humans feel superior to animals with our powerful brains, but some animals also have very complex ability to remember things. You have probably seen animals exercising this skill in Marinette County.
Many species of birds and rodents practice "food caching." This is a strategy for them to survive seasonal food shortages " like the long, hard Wisconsin winters. Squirrels will busily bury acorns one at a time all over a lawn, stashing as many nuts as possible. And in the winter, they have an uncanny ability to relocate those individual stashes, even under the snow, to help them survive the winter. They do not bury multiple nuts in any one place, so that if some other animal finds an acorn or two they still have many more meals hidden in other places.
Chipmunks are also food catchers, although they tend to use a method where they put a lot of food in one location they consider secure. This has led to us finding our car engine stuffed full of acorns, a rubber boot filled with corn kernels and my bowling bag, left in the garage, loaded to the top with goodies. So the memory capacity of a chipmunk is probably inferior to that of the squirrel, who has a more complicated food storage system.
Many birds are also food catchers. Blue jays, chickadees, ravens, woodpeckers and others hide food in the fall in numerous locations, and are able to relocate their scattered resources, one at a time, as needed months later. This is sometimes what is going on when you see a chickadee alight on a feeder, grab a seed, and leave only to return moments later. Bird researchers found that the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, actually "muscles up" in the fall when the birds need to be stashing food. So if they stash sunflower seeds in 328 individual locations, they need to be able to remember which locations contain food and which have already been emptied as winter progresses.
Elephants also have extremely good memories. Senior female herd members can remember the location of rarely-used waterholes during droughts that might happen only every 15 years. No matter, when a drought occurs, the old elephants will lead their herd to these alternative water sources and with luck, survive the drought. Younger elephants then learn where these water sources are, and when they are needed again in 20 years; help the herd relocate them.
So when it comes to memory, we have some good competition in the animal kingdom. But when it comes to "lost lyrics of the ඎ's," pretty sure I can hold my own. Now if I can just remember what I needed out here in the garage.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.
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