WASHINGTON - Birds are not stupid and their brains are not primitive so it is about time the scientific world gave them full credit, experts said on Monday.
An international group of avian experts took on the slow-moving world of scientific nomenclature, calling for a new map of the avian brain that reflects its true structure.
The current system dates back 100 years and suggests a bird's brain is mostly basal ganglia, and that this area controls primitive brain function and instinctive behavior.
In fact neither is true -- the bird brain more closely resembles human brains and even so, the basal ganglia is not a primitive region, said Erich Jarvis of Duke University in North Carolina, who led the study.
"Stop calling people birdbrains meaning stupid. Take it as a compliment," Jarvis said.
Jarvis, who studies how birds learn vocalizations such as songbird songs and imitated speech in parrots, said their behavior can be surprisingly complex.
They can use tools, they can use songs and imitate human language to communicate and they can count.
"They can lie -- you can teach a pigeon to do something that will have another pigeon get food for a reward. You can find a female pigeon that will pretend a reward for food is coming and then she eats it instead of her mate," Jarvis said.
Jarvis said he is not only defending the intellect of birds.
"We should be able to get more insight into how the human brain works, too," he said.
For instance, "primitive" regions of avian brains are actually sophisticated processing regions that are similar to those in mammals, the group said.
"There is strong interest across neuroscience in using birds as models for learning and development, and migratory and social behavior."
Nomenclature even confuses scientists
He said some birds have evolved cognitive abilities that are far more complex than in many mammals.
"We believe that names have a powerful influence on the experiments we do and the way in which we think," the consortium wrote in their argument, published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
Jarvis said it was important to change the nomenclature because it was confusing even scientists.
"People would call me up and ask me how birds could do something complex when their brains were so primitive," Jarvis said in a telephone interview
The names scientists use to describe a bird's brain structure date back 100 years to a German scientist, Ludwig Edinger, who is considered the founder of comparative neuroanatomy.
"A lot went into trying to support the idea of a human's place in the evolutionary scheme of animals. They didn't follow Darwin's view that evolution was a tree," Jarvis said.
They tried to link it to religion -- a linear system where god created one creature, not good enough, then created another creature, not good enough and then created human -- perfect," he added.
"It was beautiful story but it wasn't true."