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What Chickadees Have That I Want. Badly

Monday, December 23, 2013 - 04:17 PM

First I look in my right coat pocket. Nothing. Then my left. Nothing. Then my pants, right side — no. Then my pants, left side — yes! This is me at my front door, looking for my keys. Every day.

I have this extraordinary ability to not remember where my keys are. It's uncanny. Every morning, I lock the front door, step away, fall into a 2 ½ second trance during which I place my keys in lord-knows-which pocket, even if a second earlier I was saying to myself, "OK, remember where you put your keys." But I don't. Which is why, around this time of year, I envy chickadees. They've solved this problem.

A chickadee

Robert Krulwich/NPR

You know these birds. Here in the Northeast, they are everywhere, and they stick around during the winter. The "black-capped" ones are most familiar, with two-tone heads that make them look like masked bank robbers. The thing about them is that in the late fall, they have an enormous amount of remembering to do.

Starting in October, they are busy flying around their territory — which can cover about 10 square miles — gathering seeds from fruiting bushes and trees, and then caching them, storing them, in hundreds and hundreds of hiding places. So if you're a chickadee you have to remember ... (I've marked the spots in red) ...

Chickadees have to remember where they store their seeds.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

... that you left seeds on the upper-left window sill of a particular house, also on the upside of that house's chimney, also between twigs two and three on the tree on the right side of that house, and on and on, creating a list so long (especially compared to my own paltry four pockets) that it would make my head explode.

Which is, by the way, what happens to chickadees' heads. They (almost literally) explode. Every fall.

Birds With Elastic Brains

According to professor Diane Lee at Cal State University, Long Beach, every fall the part of the chickadee's brain responsible for remembering where things are expands in volume by approximately 30 percent, stays big during the winter, and then shrinks back in the spring.

Let me say that again: They grow more brain when they need to remember things; then shrink that brain when the "remembering" season ends.

That doesn't mean they look like this:

Every fall, the part of the chickadees brain responsible for remembering where things are expands in volume by approximately 30 percent.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Diane says that while the overall size of the brain might grow a little, the real change is in the number of neurons, or brain cells. When the bird thinks, "OK, I've just put some sunflower seeds under this brick," new brain cells (and new connections between those cells) spring into being and become a memory. If you count the cells in a chickadee brain before the fall, and then count them after, Diane wrote me, "the number of neurons definitely goes up in the hippocampus, and a number of us have confirmed that (including my lab)."

What Seed? What Brick?

After winter is over, the bird will erase those connections, and all memory of the sunflower-seed-under-the-brick disappears. Sort of like your memory of the room you stayed in at the Days Inn four months ago. If don't use it, you lose it. But in the chickadee's case, the brain itself, its cellular count, shrinks. Thirty percent is a lot of shrinkage. (Or, as winter comes on, a lot of extra capacity.)

So these birds have, in effect, elastic brains. Only certain birds have this ability (some to cache food in the fall; some, like the canary, to learn songs in the spring.)

Twenty years ago, this was an astonishing notion. When neuroscientist Fernando Nottebohm first described cell growth in chickadees back in 1994, brain scientists thought, "This can't be." They believed that animals didn't add brain cells once they became adults, that a mature brain stays the same. But we now know that's not true — not true of us, and not true of chickadees.

But, while humans can also grow new brain cells in adulthood, it seems to me, especially when I'm standing at my door every evening searching pockets, that we could grow a few more.

To be blunt: I want what the chickadee's got.



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Comments [8]



Jan. 21 2014 01:30 PM
Brucifer from Sydney, 'Standing On Our Heads Land'

I live in hope that this is the century that the mechanics of sentient thought, cognition, memory, sense of self, etc, all become understood.

For example, research at the MindBrain Institute in Sydney and elsewhere have gained insights into how a brain comprised of several 'specialised brains' all conspire to create a notion of ourselves as one thing. Or that our guts and hearts have neural networks that possibly have processing and even rudimentary 'thinking' or problem solving capabilities associated with the function of the organs they're connected to (eg, 'to have a heart' or 'to feel it in my heart' might have more implications than we realise).

But how a bird grows additional memory capacity it could shine a light on how to correct neural deficiencies such as Alzheimers, regrow sections of damaged brains (assuming memory centres remained intact and the owner of the brain/s remembered who they are), et al. But at least neuro-plasticity is emerging as a mainstream field from its former marginal crank fringe position, so might get more research funds; because I for one find it odd that, as a species, we understand more about quantum cosmology in some respects than we do about how the thing we use to understand quantum cosmology works.

But it might not be so complicated as we think. Based on some LaMarckian notions, or the concept of 'you are what you eat' it might be as simple a matter as just eating chickadees and seeing if you inherit the elastic brain trait!

Oh lord, who's that phoning? The Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals? I WAS JOKING PEOPLE!

Jan. 09 2014 12:33 AM
Ian MacGregor from San Ramon, CA

The article seems a bit LaMarckian. Is it not more proper to say that the growth in the brain allows them
to remember more storage locations rather than their brains grow larger because they need to remember?. Also
What would the advantage be of the brain becoming smaller in size in the spring? Perhaps there is none at all.
The timing of the inflation/ deflation is just an evolutionary happenstance that allows chickadees to fuel
their way through frigid winters

Dec. 30 2013 08:20 PM
M huston from California

I live in the sierras near Yosemite in CA
I see lots of these chickadees out there in the forest, but there are other birds mixed withthem, a little larger, with painted yellow sprckles on each side of their wings; also another group, very tini, the move and jump about very quickly I do not know what they are.
Any possibility i can share thier foto with your post?

Dec. 29 2013 12:19 PM

The amazing thing is that these tough and tender little birds also..........................................I forgot what I was going to say.


Dec. 28 2013 06:42 AM

Isn't it possible that this might happen in humans when we are preparing for tests? Isn't the hippocampus for temporary shorter term storage? Don't the things we need to remember long tern get stored in the cortical regions?
If so, it would be interesting to look at the cortical regions (although I wouldn't know where to start) to see if the generation and depletion of neurons happens that rapidly.

Dec. 27 2013 02:28 AM

Love this video:

Dec. 26 2013 06:07 PM

Lots of other critters do this too, Blue Jays and squirrels to name a couple (and surely many others), cacheing food for the winter. I wonder if similar brain stuff happens with them too. I mean, come to think of it, think how confusing it would get if they *did* remember where they put every seed from this year, and last year, and the year before that, etc.

Dec. 26 2013 04:10 PM

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