The Black-capped Chickadee Can Swap Old Brain Cells for New Ones

Could this explain the bird's remarkable memory?

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


The brains of chickadees grow in the late summer and early fall. At this time of year the birds cache food, usually seeds, throughout their home range. Come winter, they need to be able to find what they’ve stashed. The growing part of the brain is the hippocampus, which plays an important role in spatial memory.

Dr. Fernando Nottebohm of Rockefeller University in New York studies the growth of neurons in the brains of birds. He focused on the remarkable ability of Black-capped Chickadees to recall the locations of hundreds of stored seeds. His lab produced the first evidence that in the adult brain of birds neurons are replaced periodically, with the learning of new behaviors.

Dr. Nottebohm suggests that as demand for memory space peaks, chickadees discard cells that hold old memories and replace them with new cells that store fresh memories. 

Studying the ability of a bird’s brain to generate new neurons might uncover ways to replace brain cells lost due to injury, stroke or degeneration, as happens in diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimers.

Perhaps we should reconsider how we use the term “bird brain.

For BirdNote I’m Michael Stein.


Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Chris Peterson

Written by Todd Peterson and Frances Wood

Narrator: Michael Stein

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Call of Black-capped Chickadee [106942] recorded by R.S. Little; chatter of Black-capped Chickadees [117803] recorded by S.R. Pantle; song of Black-capped Chickadee [105762] recorded by G.A. Keller.

Ambient recorded by C. Peterson.

BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

© 2013 Tune In to   November 2017   ID# BCCH-07-2013-11-05  BCCH-07