Junior research fellow at UC Santa Barbara’s SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, Corina Logan, has recently began studying cognition in wild birds by examining foraging techniques.

During her visit to Costa Rica several years ago, Logan found that great-tailed grackles played together just like some mammal species and were not afraid of humans. Logan realized that this avian species might have more intelligence and innovative foraging techniques than expected for their “bird brain”.

“Grackles are one of the social bird species so they live in groups, foraging together and roosting together. They also have a lot of innovations compared to many other species. In North America, the crows are the most innovative birds and the grackles are the second-most innovative bird group,” Logan said in an email.

Originally from Central America, grackles are now making their way up to North America, residing first in Arizona and Texas and slowly trickling into California. Santa Barbara currently has a population of about 100 great-tailed grackles. With a National Geographic Society Waitt Grant, Logan will set up a field site in Santa Barbara to further her research of foraging techniques. “First, I want to know what foraging methods they use naturally. My students and I will document what food items they eat and all of the different ways they gain access to or find their food. For instance, I have seen them lifting up pieces of wood and looking underneath for food,” Logan said. “Once I have color rings on all of the individuals, then we can see whether some individuals are more innovative than others and whether they learn innovations from each other.”

According to Logan, the avian anatomy has only recently been revised starting with the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium in 2005. Since then there has been a resurgence of interest in bird intelligence. Nicky Clayton at the University of Cambridge discovered that the western scrub-jay, part of the large-brained crow family, displays episodic-like memory, future planning, and theory of mind — characteristics that are apparent in humans. Avian cognition may be even more complex and intelligent than we think it to be.

“It is my dream project and I am so excited that it got funded by the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at UCSB and the National Geographic Society Waitt Grant,” Logan said.

Logan is recruiting undergraduates for her bird cognition research on an ongoing basis. Applications are available at www.corinalogan.com/grackle.html.


A version of this article appeared on page 6 of January 8th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.