Bird Brains

In the last few years I’ve noticed that there is no originality in journalism any more.  At least in the magazines that I poke my nose into.  Yes, I still read words printed on paper, bound into booklets called magazines.  These magazines are mailed to me every month or so. Unless someone scoffs them before they make their way into my mailbox.  Which happens occasionally.  A lack of integrity among mail carriers has developed in parallel with a lack of journalistic originality.  We live in a troublesome age.

I read Popular Science, Scientific American and National Geographic.  Back in the 80’s I would dread the arrival of Scientific American, because it was approximately an inch thick and it would take me about two weeks to read one issue. Now most of the articles are no longer than three or four pages, and many of them have a distinct political slant.

I’m trying to figure out why National Geographic is still called National Geographic.  It used to be about an inch thick and had lots of maps in it.  And pictures of people, roads, buildings, animals, fish and birds.  Now it’s a lot harder to see the connection to Geography in some of the articles, and many of them have a distinct political slant.

I guess you could say I’m disillusioned with both Scientific American and National Geographic.  Or maybe disappointed.

On the other hand,  I’m not disillusioned or disappointed with Popular Science.  So I’m stopping here briefly to wonder if instead I could say that I’m illusioned or appointed with Popular Science.  Probably not.  English can be tricky that way.

I think I’ll just say I’m pretty stoked on Popular Science.  For starters, it was never an inch thick.  And many of the articles have to do with things that a) go really fast b) look super-complicated c) might involve serious amounts of electricity or d) are just generally dangerous to play with.

Anyway, getting back to the lack of originality in journalism, I’ve noticed that if one of the three magazines I just mentioned, such as National Geographic, was to run an article about a topic such as why the hierarchy of medals handed out in dance competitions doesn’t make any sense from a Chemistry standpoint, then sure as shootin’ that same topic will be covered a month or two later in one or both of the other two magazines I just mentioned.

picture of a gold medal for a dance competition award hanging on a ribbon
Dance competition medal

I don’t have the space here to get into this whole dance medal hierarchy/Chemistry thing because I really want to talk about Ornithology, and in particular I want to talk about the intelligence of birds.

giggling man with large parrot perched on his shoulder
Ornithologist (left) looking quite pleased with career choice









Birds are smart.

Take your basic pigeons for example.  If a pigeon runs across one of those fake plastic owls it will figure out in pretty short order that that owl is bogus.  Meanwhile you shelled out how much for thing. $29.95?  No bird would pay $29.95 for a sham owl. That’s for sure.

And what about this? Just recently I was musing out loud about Normal versus Lognormal statistical distributions and my parrot suddenly chimed in:

Parrot: “No. Remember that the standard deviation is MULTIPLICATIVE in Lognormal distributions and ADDITIVE in Normal distributions.”

Me: “Shit!  You’re right.  What was I thinking?”

Parrot: “I dunno.  May I have another cracker?”

Me: “Yes, if you can answer this riddle:  What did the mathematician say when he lost his parrot?”

Parrot: “Polygon.”

See what I mean?  That is one smart bird.

I probably made that whole conversation up.  I don’t actually have a parrot, but I do have a dog and two cats.  None of them can talk.  And at this point, if I got a parrot to talk to, the thing would likely outlive me. But I’m getting off topic here.

My point is that bird brains are getting lots of air time lately.  Earlier this year, both National Geographic AND Popular Science ran articles discussing the intelligence of birds.  Coincidence?  I think not.  This is a perfect example of the current lack of originality in journalism.  You thought I was kidding.  And bloggers are even worse because they just pick up the stuff that the magazines are copying from each other and replay that to their followers.  All fifty-six of them.

The February 2018 National Geographic article entitled: “Think ‘Birdbrain’ Is an Insult? Think Again”  had all kinds of great stuff in it though, including a tool-making cockatoo named Figaro and another expert puzzle-solving cockatoo named Muppet, who was described as ” a little, focused engineer”.  (If I ever get another pet I think I will name it Muppet.  Even if it’s an iguana or worse yet, a Komodo Dragon.)

There was also mention of some crows in Seattle who began bringing dozens of trinkets to an 8-year old girl and her brother after they started laying out crow snacks (in the form of dog kibble) in their back yard.  The trinkets included Lego pieces, tiny gears, lightbulbs, a tiny Waldo (maybe he’s in the photo below, maybe not), a tube of Crazy Glue, the rubbery insert that I lost from one of my earbuds last year, a discarded intracardiac pacemaker electrode,  a small plastic squid (not shown) and a Wenger 16999 knife (also not shown).  Note that the crows had to team up to bestow the Wenger, as it weighs approximately seven pounds.

cockatoo nibbling on a piece of cardboard in order to make a tool
Cockatoo constructing primitive slide rule
trinkets brought as gifts by crows
Trinkets bestowed on two children in Seattle by a bunch of crows who are partial to dog kibble








As if that wasn’t enough, Popular Science followed suit by devoting their entire Spring 2018 issue to intelligence of all sorts: human, animal, robot, car and sentient public washrooms.  The cover featured a crow that was reputed to be smarter than your 5th grader. On page 104 of that issue, I also learned that crows and maybe corvids in general  hold funerals for their departed.

With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe: Quoth the raven:”Nevermore” !

picture of a crow hoilding a pencil in its beak
Crow gloating after finishing the SAT in three hours and twenty-seven minutes

This is really great and all, but the best thing I ran across pertaining to birds is some recent research that has determined that birds can see the magnetic field of the Earth.  This may be due to special proteins in their retina called cryptochromes.  Cryptochrome comes from the Greek meaning “special protein in the retina”.

With the help of cryptochromes, magnetic fields are visible to the birds in the presence of certain wavelengths of blue light.  This is due to Quantum Coherence, which may occur whenever a quantum physicist utters a coherent sentence understandable by normal human beings including, but not limited to, Ornithologists.  But Quantum Coherence also occurs whenever wave functions “cohere” or have the same phase.

Here is what some theoretical and computational biophysicists think the sky might look like to migrating birds, thanks to Quantum Coherence:

road sign pointing to Reykjavik

I’m kidding.  This is actually what the biophysicists think the sky might look like to migrating birds, especially owls:


hooters written in skywriting

No. I’m kidding again.

Seriously, I am really and for true about to show you a picture of what the biophysicists think that birds might see.  But first I have to swear on this real picture from the Los Alamos ID badge of iconic quantum physicist and super-genius Richard “Dick” Feynman, that I’m not going to show you another fake picture.

picture of the Los Alamos ID badge of quantum physicist Richard "Dick" Feynman
Richard Feynman as a youth, smirking after he finished the SAT in 23 minutes and 12 seconds

Here we go with the real picture.  The top series of images somehow represent magnetic fields and the bottom series is the superposition of the magnetic fields onto the bird’s field of vision:

magnetic fields superimposed on blue sky

All the bird has to do is keep itself oriented to the desired pattern of brightness.  Pretty amazing huh? What is even more amazing is that other creatures besides birds can detect magnetic fields.  Alert readers will recall that dogs exhibit a preference for facing north when they poop.  And some birds will also help dogs get their “bathroom bearings”:

parakeet sitting on nose of golden Labrador Retriever
Parakeet whispering to dog: “The bathroom is over there to your right.”

We may not understand them, but we should take our hats off to all the Quantum Physicists of this world, and also to the ones on the Home World of Quantum Physicists.

Better living through Quantum Coherence!

Next column: Robot successfully performs one of the hardest human tasks





Dave Barry fan and Medical Director at Rocky Mountain Analytical

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