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Cabeza Prieta Natural History Association
Members' Stories

Coffee Pot Mountain


Bird Brains
by Bill Perry

One of the great joys of living in the Sonoran Desert is being close to nature. In Earth's more arid deserts, living plants and animals are rarely even seen, but here we're fortunate to live in this diverse habitat where a large variety of wildlife and plants thrive. Among the most noticeable species-and my favorites-are the birds, animals capable of doing what humans can only dream of, flying through the air on their own built-in wings. If there's a gift from heaven meant to lighten our days and make us smile, it's probably birds. In addition, when we call someone a "birdbrain," it may not be as insulting as we think.

Many birds have talents beyond our own and use them to live successfully without all the infrastructure that humans require. Some are just plain smart. Crows and parrots, for instance, have better reasoning capabilities than dogs, equivalent to a human five-year-old. Jays can remember where they've hidden thousands of pine nuts and retrieve them to eat months later-when we often can't remember where we left our car keys. Pigeons can be trained to read a mammogram as well as a human can. Many species of birds migrate thousands of miles, often across water, to another continent and then return to their same nesting area using a combination of sun and star tracking, sensitivity to magnetic fields, smells, low-frequency sounds and built-in clocks, all of this automatically integrated by their brains.

Where birds really surpass human capabilities is in the area of vision, actually seeing more than we do and then processing the information for practical use much faster. Not only do birds see in a wider range of wavelengths (including ultraviolet), but some of them have a 360-degree view-compared to our roughly 120 degrees. Because they do things like catching tiny darting mosquitos-or another bird-on the fly, birds are able to process that visual input more than twice as fast as humans. A human movie, at 24 frames per second, would look like a slide show to many birds. Eagles can see five times more detail than we do ("eagle eyes"). Diving birds see as well underwater as they do above due to flexible lenses. Note: Because birds can see ultraviolet light, many of them have markings and color patterns that we don't even see.

I used to think that the only birds with a sense of smell were vultures, who needed it to locate stinky road kills for dining. But it turns out that all birds can smell and many well enough to detect family members, predators, insect-bearing plant types and, best of all, potential mates. Add to these faculties great senses of hearing, taste and touch, many evolved to a high degree. Owls, though they have great night vision, can catch a mouse in total darkness, thanks to their sensitive asymmetric ears.

Because of outdoor cats, climate change, loss of habitat, pesticides and more, birds in general are in rapid decline, losing an estimated 2.9 billion individuals since 1970, or roughly 25%. We can help by putting out water and food, including hummingbird feeders. Diverse plantings also provide food, insects and cover for our desert birds. Beyond that, appreciating the intelligence and grace of birds is a most rewarding joy.



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Natural History of the Sonoran Desert and Refuge