60-Second Science

Urban Birds Boast Big Brains

Birds that prosper in the city have larger brains than their country cousins. Karen Hopkin reports, with assistance from New York City birds

Cities have a lot to offer: theater, music, restaurants, birds. Yes, birds. But city birds are not like other birds. Because big cities are inhabited by birds with big brains. That’s according to a study in the journal Biology Letters. [Alexei Maklakov et al., "Brains and the city: big-brained passerine birds succeed in urban environments"]

It can take smarts to survive in the big city. Especially for birds. The urban environment is very different from the one in which their ancestors were born and fledged. But do city birds really need more gray matter to make it?

Scientists surveyed 82 species of passerine birds, including sparrows and anything that perches, in and around 12 cities in central Europe.* They classified the birds as those that breed in the heart of the city or those that avoid the hustle and bustle. And then they compared the bird brains.

The results? Birds that prosper on the city streets have larger brains than their pastoral relations. So it seems that novel environments, including urban landscapes, may select for street smarts—at least for birds that flock toward the city lights.

Urban areas continue to spread. So to survive, our feathered friends may need to expand their minds as they spread their wings.

—Karen Hopkin and feathered friends

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

*Editor's note (4/28/11): This sentence was changed after publication to correct the types of birds included in the survey.

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