singer200_Anacleto RappingLos Angeles Times via Getty Images_parrot Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Bright as a Bird

Nearly one in seven of the 10,000-plus bird species is currently at risk of extinction. The fate of birds, both wild individuals and those kept as pets, would be harder to ignore if more people understood how intelligent and complex they are.

PRINCETON – Birds are found worldwide, in many different environments, from penguins in Antarctica to pigeons in Trafalgar Square, and from the familiar sparrows on our lawns to the great albatrosses who spend years at sea without ever touching land. There are more than 10,000 species totaling many billions of wild individuals. To this we must add the tens of billions of birds we raise for their meat or eggs, and others we keep as pets.

Unfortunately, nearly one in seven of those 10,000-plus bird species is currently at risk of extinction. Even common species are declining. A recent study estimated that the total population of birds of all types in the United States and Canada has dropped by 30% since 1970.

It is easy to dismiss their fate. The use of the term “bird brain” as an insult suggests that many people have a low opinion of avian intelligence. But they are wrong. Irene Pepperberg’s work with Alex, a grey parrot who lived from 1976 to 2007, showed that a bird can learn concepts such as “color” and “shape.” Pepperberg would show Alex a red cube and a red sphere, and ask “What is the same?” Alex would reply “color.” When shown a red cube and a yellow cube, and asked the same question, Alex would say “shape.”

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