Nature Table for March
Creatures really get a bad rap within the colloquialisms of the English language. We scorn people for their hare-brained schemes, we shame those without manners for their pig-like eating habits, and we accuse the flightiest of folks of being bird-brained. Within these phrases is a theme: that humans’ intelligence is far superior to that of certain animals. Perhaps there was once a hierarchy of animals that dictated which ones were insult-worthy; if there were, rabbits, pigs and birds were clearly low on the list.
Lately in our classroom, we’ve been putting a lot of thought into the idea of being “bird-brained.” We’ve fed and observed our feathered neighbors all winter, and nothing in our observations points to the lack of intelligence on the part of our feeder friends. Birds seem to be, in our experience, very intelligent – with one exception: they smash into our school’s windows with surprising frequency.
So why do birds fly into windows? Thanks to that familiar phrase, young naturalists are quick to make the assumption that it must have been a “stupid bird,” one that couldn’t figure out that there was a window in the way. But this is quite far from the case! Though their brains are much smaller than ours, birds are actually very intelligent. The most intelligent of avian species are crows, whose surprising skills include using road traffic to crack walnuts and using hooked tools to pull grubs from tree trunks.
While we haven’t had any crows crash into our windows, it’s still more than fair to say that the birds who have made the unfortunate mistake of flying towards us are very intelligent. Made up of a small cerebellum alongside an olfactory bulb and an optical lobe (both fairly large), birds’ brains are very different from human brains. These incredibly small balls of neural connections can conceptualize the world in ways that humans haven’t even dreamed of: the bird-friendly landscape has many more important details than the human-friendly position of the landscape does. Just imagine how much thought and decision-making goes into choosing the perfect branch to sit on! While the human brain chooses a seat in a theater from a limited number of options and walks to it, birds choose perches from literally thousands of nearby options and make decisions based on who knows what!
The theme of bird intelligence carries over into this month’s nature collection, wherein recently discovered treasures sit alongside treasures discovered long ago. Our most recent (and most surprising) treasure to be found is actually an entire bird: an impossibly lightweight goldfinch that met its unfortunate end while zooming with determination straight toward the small window in our classroom door. The only sign of outer damage is a slight flattening of the end of its beak, but otherwise, the body is perfectly intact – bringing us to another opportunity to discuss the state of birds’ brains. It’s likely that the finch broke its neck upon impact, but we’ve discussed the possibility of brain damage as a cause of death, leading us to a new interpretation of what it means to be bird-brained. Should any of us suffer a concussion, we’ll certainly consider ourselves bird-brained in honor of our goldfinch friend.
Brain-themed treasures in this month’s collection include:
– a goldfinch
– heron skull and bones
– shells from duck eggs
– prints of bird tracks
– assorted feathers
Relevant highlights from our nature library include:
- I Found a Dead Bird: A Kid’s Guide to the Cycle of Life and Death by Jan Thornhill
- Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird (A True Story) by Stephanie Spinner and Meilo So
- Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart
- An Egg is Quiet by Sylvia Hutts Aston and Diana Long
Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent
A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011. She is a graduate of Antioch University with a masters in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin lives and teaches 5th grade in the Hilltowns of Western MA and serves on the Mary Lyon Foundation Board of Directors.