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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Avian cognition: examples of sophisticated capabilities in space and song

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Although birds have traditionally and colloquially been considered less cognitively complex than mammals, and especially primates, more recent research has consistently refuted these assumptions. We argue that the impressive abilities of birds to navigate and communicate require considerable information‐processing capabilities. These capacities include collecting, organizing, and selecting from a wide variety of navigational cues to orient toward and find a goal location in the spatial domain, and utilizing open‐ended categorization and possibly even abstract reasoning to discriminate species‐specific acoustic features of songs and calls. Furthermore, these abilities may be present across many avian species, providing evidence for domain‐general cognitive facilities. We provide examples of processes in spatial learning and communication in birds, and locate them within the general literature, as evidence that the term ‘bird‐brain’ should not be considered a pejorative. WIREs Cogn Sci 2015, 6:285–297. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1346 This article is categorized under: Psychology > Comparative Psychology
Schematic of the layout used by Kelly et al. (1998) to study reorientation by geometry and feature in pigeons. Food was consistently located in one corner during training (shown here as the top left corner; the actual corner varied across birds). Some birds were initially trained with features (distinct landmarks) in each corner (Feature group), whereas other birds were first trained with no features (Geometric group) and features were added later. Control trials that were identical to training but contained no food confirmed that birds did not use cues from the food to find the correct corner. Both groups showed strong control by geometry, as evidenced by choices to both geometrically equivalent corners on tests in which the features were absent (panel a). On conflict tests in which the correct landmark was moved to a geometrically incorrect location, the Feature group was more likely than the Geometry group to choose the corner that contained the correct feature, indicating that initial experience mattered (panel b). Both groups (panel c, data collapsed) chose the correct corner more often than the geometrically equivalent corner when the proximal features were removed, indicating that the pigeons could use the distal landmarks to disambiguate the geometry. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 1998 American Psychological Association)
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Sound spectrogram (FFT window = 512 points; −35 to 0 dB relative to peak amplitude) of a black‐capped chickadee: (a) chick‐a‐dee call with notes A, B, C, C, D, D, D, and (b) fee‐bee song showing fee and bee notes.
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