Bird Brains to the Rescue

Brown pelican in Tavernier, Florida

When thinking about all of the challenges in conservation — climate changing, habitats being lost, populations increasing — it can seem like a lot of doom and gloom. Especially when discussing extinction.

But in these optimistic days, it is good to see signs of hope. Like in this recent article on a study (pdf) by Angela Milner and Stig Walsh of The Natural History Museum:

Milner and Walsh found that birds may have survived extinction 65 million years ago (when 85 percent of animals on earth didn’t, including the dinosaurs and other flying species like pterosaurs) in part because they had well-developed brains that allowed them to perceive and adapt to changing conditions.

Birds can be exceedingly clever:

  • The woodpecker finch of the Galapagos uses twigs or cactus spines as tools to dig grubs and insects out of branches.
  • The Clark’s nutcracker hides thousands of pine seeds and is then able to remember where it stashed most of them when it is ready to eat.
  • In Japan, some ingenious crows have even learned to use traffic to crack nuts (watch some video of them doing it).

The researchers in this study found that the brains of birds that lived with dinosaurs were similar to those of modern birds. The mass extinction is thought to have occurred after a meteor struck Earth, causing climate and weather patterns to change and making food harder to find. Birds likely had advantages over their competitors due to their more advanced mental agility and motor skills.

Today, the natural world is facing unprecedented challenges. Human populations continue to increase as our climate changes and habitats are being lost.  Species — including humans — are being forced to find ways to adapt to the changes.

Even some smart, resilient birds are having a difficult time keeping up. Globally, 12 percent of bird species are threatened with extinction, mostly due to deforestation and the spread of agriculture. That figure sounds like a lot — but it’s not as bad as 22 percent of mammal species and 32 percent of amphibian species that are threatened.

It’s good to be reminded that some species may be resilient, able to adapt in ways we can’t predict.

At the same time, there are many that cannot. Hopefully, we can use our brains to help those species, and the habitats that they (and we) rely on, to be more resilient in the face of climate change and other threats.

(Image: Brown pelican in Tavernier, Florida. Credit: Jennifer Molnar/TNC.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Nice post Jen! I want one of those crows! Genius!

  2. There are 13 species of Galapagos finches. Finches are all about the same size (10–20 cm). The differentiation between species are mainly in the size and shape of their beaks.

    It is important to note that the beaks are well adapted to different food sources like for pecking wood, crushing seeds, and probing flowers for nectar.


  3. Matisse painted the nude when a sculpture he was working on shattered.

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