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Gateway Science Museum

Fall 2020

If You Call Me a Birdbrain, I’ll Say Thank You

by Jackie Howland 

     “Birdbrain” used to be an insult, but now we’re having to rethink former assumptions about our avian friends. Turns out some birds have intelligence that equals that of primates in many ways. The thinking used to be the size of the brain determined intelligence, but it’s actually the size of the brain relative to the size of the animal. In other words, if we were shrunk down to the size of a crow, we’d still be as smart as we are.

     Not all birds are smart, of course. My family kept chickens when I was young, and it was my job to feed and water them and clean their coop. Later, I added ducks and even a goose at one time, although they can be rather mean. It’s really not funny to be goosed by an actual goose! I can, though, make a terrible joke about that goose’s “fowl” temper. Ack! Most barnyard animals aren’t known for their intelligence and the fowl are no exception to this. But I did have affection for all my animals, so my love of birds just grew naturally.

     The smartest birds belong to two families – Psittacine (parrots) and Corvus (crows). The parrot family includes parrots of course, but also parakeets, cockatiels, and love birds. And while we think of parrots as tropical birds, one member of their family, the kea, lives in the alpine regions of New Zealand, and it’s arguably the brightest member of this family. Not every New Zealander appreciates this bird, though, since it’s very fond of destroying windshield wipers and tearing the rubber sealant from around car doors among other destructive behaviors.

     These actions, however, just reflect keas’ curious nature and their relentless search for new food sources. They’re decidedly omnivorous and along with fruit and seeds will also eat sea creatures, other birds’ offspring, and feed on the carcasses of dead sheep. Researchers have tested this parrot’s ability to solve puzzles and found the birds are able to figure out numerous steps in getting a food reward. They’ll push levers, pull strings, open small doors, and perform whatever other devious but doable activities the researchers devise. And they remember the sequence of the steps as well. They’re just darned clever birds!

new zealand keasNew Zealand Keas 

     Another member of the parrot family that’s extraordinarily smart is the gray parrot, rather famously so among those who are interested in animal behavior. Irene Pepperberg conducted a thirty-year study on a gray parrot she named Alex. She compared its intelligence to that of a five-year-old human. Alex understood the names of colors and shapes and could even request things with what he said. For example, “wanna go back” meant he wanted to go back to his cage. Sadly, he died unexpectedly. We’ll never know what he might have achieved if he’d lived longer.

     Interestingly, recent research has shown some members of the parrot family can show altruistic behaviors. They’ll share with other non-related parrots with no expectation of reciprocation. Such behavior was previously believed to be limited to primates, although dolphins also demonstrate such behavior across species when they rescue drowning people or save them from shark attacks. Can you imagine a lizard offering up the grasshopper it just caught to another lizard that just happened by?

     Crows are highly clever birds, as are many of their close relatives such as ravens, magpies, and jays. Crows deliberately drop nuts into the street where cars will run over them, thus solving the problem of nut cracking. They understand the idea of water displacement and will drop pebbles into a narrow glass where the water isn’t high enough for them to get a drink. And they recognize individual faces. Researchers put on masks and then acted in a manner the crows would see as threatening. The crows would later recognize the masked people and sound the alarm. They can even communicate this perceived danger to other crows who didn’t experience the threat, as demonstrated by these crows’ otherwise unexplained fear of the masked people.

ravensA Conspiracy of Ravens (also called an Unkindness) – not to be mistaken for a Murder of Crows

     I’ve had personal experience with a wild bird recognizing me. At least I’m convinced of this. I used to regularly eat a snack on a certain bench at Chico State. I’d often have a container of blueberries or some strawberries as part of this and invariably find some overly soft ones among the bunch. One day a scrub jay was hopping around looking for food, so I tossed the unwanted berries toward it. Naturally, it investigated, and in days following, it would regularly appear and clearly expect a repeat of the same behavior.

     I admit I’m not as clever about facial recognition as a crow when it comes to identifying a specific scrub jay – they do all look alike to me – but the behavior of this bird told me it was the same one. It was begging! Obviously, animals don’t question human behavior. Another human might wonder why I was sharing with a stranger, perhaps even be suspicious or assign some hidden motive to my actions. Animals just seem to live in the moment and accept their good fortune. So who’s really the bird brain?

     The behaviors and characteristics of the smarter animals help us understand the forces that create intelligence. Social animals are often highly intelligent – birds that regularly exist in groups are smarter than those who normally maintain a solitary existence, so social interaction is one force.

     Some solitary animals develop greater intelligence, though, such as members of the cat family. Only African lions are social; all other members of the cat family are solitary except for breeding purposes and raising offspring. Cats that coexist with humans may adapt their behaviors, though, and our understanding of all cats partly comes from our pet cats. And we know them as curious and playful. These two traits carry over into adulthood with cats and they’re two reasons cats are so smart. We also see playfulness and curiosity in parrots, so these are two more important forces in developing more brain power.

     Difficult problems can also drive intelligence. Predators are almost always more intelligent than their prey. Prey animals are usually grass eaters or browsers and this food presents no problems to be solved. It’s abundant and never runs away and certainly doesn’t disguise itself. The problem of being food is more difficult, but it can be addressed by physical responses such as speed and stamina. Catching an animal that doesn’t want to be caught requires clever strategies. Even omnivores can need to solve problems with food sources, such as hard shells on nuts, lack of availability at certain times of the year for fruit and seeds, and limitations on the amounts available.

     Understanding the forces behind intelligence can help teachers and parents to ensure more learning in children. We can encourage curiosity, set up solvable problems, reward problem solving, see play and socialization as the good things they are, and generally provide plenty of good modeling. Then we can all be “birdbrains!”

Research Interrupted:
How COVID-19 has impacted field research

by Stephanie Parker

     Across the world, life has been halted, altered, and interrupted as we face the global COVID-19 pandemic. Many folks are spending the majority of their time at home, quarantining with their family and roommates to protect the health of their community. At Gateway, the museum sits empty and the exhibits rest behind closed doors. This is echoed across campus at CSU, Chico with many empty classrooms, even as we begin our fall semester. Typically, campus would be abuzz with classes, clubs, events, and research. These days, everything is much quieter.

     Fall semester is a time to re-group and start data analysis for the faculty, undergraduate and graduate students that usually spend their summers researching either in the field or in labs on campus. During my summer field work in 2018 and 2019, I spent the mornings up at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, BCCER, and came back to analyze my data in our shared lab space in Holt Hall. The air conditioning was greatly appreciated on a hot summer day in Chico. 

     In the midst of a global pandemic, research is looking quite different. Campus is partially open for essential operations and some upper-division courses, and most students and faculty continue their work remotely. How have these safety precautions impacted ongoing student research? I spoke with a couple Biological Sciences graduate students to answer this question.

     Drew Nielsen, a graduate student studying how habitat restoration impacts juvenile salmon and trout populations on the Sacramento River with the Banet Lab, was set to jump into his 2nd field season this spring and summer. Their monitoring team works year round to collect data and he had begun setting up enclosures in restored side channels of the Sacramento River containing juvenile chinook salmon. Once the state mandated a stay-in-place order, he was no longer able to continue his field research.

drew nielsen

     "This was a huge blow to my thesis project because I needed two field seasons to accurately detect any trends in growth between different habitats. Once we removed the fish from the river, I had to seriously consider my options to continue with my thesis. Thankfully, my advisor Dr. Banet is amazing and helped me figure out a 'Frankenthesis' composed of several projects that I have contributed to over the course of my graduate career."

     The Biological Sciences graduate program is approximately 2 years in length. The course work required should be completed in about 4 semesters, but for those that participate in seasonal field research that leaves only about 2 summers to collect data. Each summer really counts! 

     Laura Lampe, a graduate student studying the effect of climate change on interactions between plants and their bee pollinators in both alpine and low-elevation habitats with the Ivey Lab, began her first field season during the pandemic. Because Laura collects data from herbarium and museum records, she can do most of her work from home any time of year. 

laura lampe research

     "The current global health concerns haven't affected the aspects of my project that depend on historical records because those are available online (you can explore the databases I use at www.cch2.org and www.calbug.berkeley.edu) and I can work with them from home.  My fieldwork - checking certain plant populations for flowering and pollinators - has changed a little bit since the beginning of the current global health concerns.  Ordinarily I'd be able to have an undergraduate assistant help me collect flowers and bees in the field, but because I need to practice social distancing to help keep myself, my family, and my fellow students safe, my research assistants have been people that I'm already isolating with - like members of my family.  My lovely mom has been my research assistant on two trips to visit plant populations so far!  If a family member isn't available to help me on a visit to one of these populations, I have to decide whether to cancel the trip or go by myself (which isn't always safe and is always less fun and less efficient!)."

bee on flower

     Common regulations for field-work require seeking permission and permits to collect specimens from places like National Forests and State Parks. 

     "These permits help the agencies in charge of those lands can keep track of research activities, make sure the ecosystem is protected, and prevent a plant or animal population from being collected so much that it can't recover.  Applying for these permits can take longer this year than it has in the past because agency workers might be working from home and have different workloads than usual.  Access to some lands can also be limited to prevent large crowds of visitors that can't properly distance themselves from one another."

     The experiences of both Drew and Laura are not uncommon during this time and represent a small fraction of the research occurring at Chico State and around the world. Many graduate students, early in their professional careers and goals, have agreed that there will just need to be an asterisk next to any publication or resume for their activities during 2020. Despite the many obstacles caused by COVID-19, we can take heart that everyone is experiencing this together. In a time of great uncertainty and difficulty, we are also experiencing a tenderness and patience in our communities. 

Drew reflects on the support he has received from the campus community:

      "I have felt tremendous support from my fellow lab members. Also, my committee members were very understanding and helpful in figuring out how to proceed with my masters during COVID. Along with all of these people, Dr. Banet has been very flexible, understanding and extremely supportive with all of my struggles and changes."

Laura expresses gratitude that the College of Natural Sciences has approved her to continue working on her project, as there are many students who have had their research postponed.

      "I've also been lucky to have the support of my thesis committee and my classmates.  We are all reminding one another often that we are asking good questions about the natural world around us and are doing the best we can to find the answers to those questions under these new, changing, and challenging circumstances.  Where would we be without adaptation, after all?"