The Amazing Brainpower of Birds

Few animals have taught neuroscience more than songbirds.

Birds don’t often get credit for their amazing brainpower, but few animals have taught neuroscience more than songbirds. That’s partly because birds learn songs similarly to how humans learn speech. For example, the humble zebra finch, which sings during courtship, has helped University of California-Los Angeles scientists map out thousands of genes within the brain related to song; the research has already revealed two key genes that could help explain human speech disorders.

Birds have also inspired a neuroscience revolution. It was long thought that no new brain cells were born once an animal reached adulthood. But Fernando Nottebohm of Rockefeller University has found that in songbirds, at least, this simply isn’t true—adults grow new neurons to replace those that die out. Some researchers suspect that the human brain can also grow new neurons. Harnessing this ability could radically transform treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, in which dying cells coincide with a devastating loss of mental functions.

This story originally ran as “Bird Brains”in the March-April 2013 issue of Audubon magazine.