Back to blogging again! My life has been very crazy during the past couple of months. I was offered a new job working as a biologist specializing in birds that required me to move to Fort McMurray, Alberta. The job started in May and my husband and I decided that I would move up first with five of the parrots and Micro the Maltese, while he stayed behind with the rest of the pets to prepare our house for sale.
The five parrots to come with me were Pteri (Blue and Gold Macaw), Mitri (Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo), Ripley (Red-lored Amazon), Chiku (Green-cheeked Conure mix), and Dip (Rose-crowned Conure). Sadly, Peggy, my Jenday Conure (who I named this blog after), had passed away in November, 2015. Otherwise, she would have come with me as well. Dip is a new bird I got in December 2015.
I moved up April 30 and during the evening of May 1, I noticed a huge cloud of smoke coming up from the south of the city. I later found out that a forest fire had started there, and that it had started to spread very quickly.
Most of the city was extremely smoky on May 2 and a few communities in the southern part of the city were ordered to evacuate but I wasn’t affected. On the morning of May 3, everything looked quite clear but the city fire chief noted that this was deceptive, as the smoke from the fire was staying near the ground due to the weather conditions. He warned people that the fire was not under control.
By the afternoon, I could see heavy smoke coming from two different directions, and bits of burned debris (including conifer needles) were falling from the sky. More parts of the city were ordered to evacuate, and I was starting to think that I would have to evacuate as well.
Unfortunately, my car was very low on gas, and by the time I was able to try to fill it up, gas stations in the area of the city I lived in had run out of gas. Luckily, I was able to get out of town with a co-worker and we were able to take a work truck.
Once the part of town I lived in was ordered to evacuate, I had to gather up my parrots and dog, and decide what to bring with us. I had no idea how long this evacuation would go on or where we would end up. I did have five carriers handy – one for each bird – but Micro would have to leave with just his harness and leash. When packing supplies, the first thing I thought of were the parrots, and I packed bags of parrot pellets, small bowls, several towels, newspaper, and several bottles of water. I also prepared a big Ziploc bag of dog food, which I ended up forgetting. This meant that Micro got to eat a lot of people food during his adventure. For me, I brought some toiletries (toothpaste, soap, etc), socks, underwear, my laptop, and a book. My co-worker picked us up in a truck and we headed out.
Getting out of town took a long time as there are only two roads out of the city – Highway 63 going north or Highway 63 going south. We were in the northern part of the city so we went north. All of the radio stations in Fort McMurray had stopped broadcasting so we listened to CBC (the national radio station) for updates.
There is only one hamlet north of Fort McMurray that can be reached by road, which is the First Nations community of Fort MacKay. The town did generously house many evacuees but there was no way it could handle the tens of thousands of people who had to flee north. This left various work lodges as potential evacuee destinations. There are many oil extraction operations north of Fort McMurray and there are a lot of lodges there that house workers at these operations. Some of them are huge and can house a few thousand people.
Numerous work lodges opened their doors to evacuees and a lot of the larger oil operations sent workers home to make room for evacuees. After several hours of driving north, we saw a person holding a sign saying that the Shell Albian Sands camp was open and had room for evacuees so we headed there.
It took us about eight hours to arrive at the camp. Under normal circumstances, it takes about 45 minutes to make the same drive. Because of the fuel shortage, some people had to abandon their vehicles at the side of the road. However, the police were patrolling the roads to help people who had run out of fuel. I also saw people heading north riding on ATVs.
Once we got to the Shell camp, we had to park the truck in a lot and wait in a line outside for a bus to shuttle us to the camp. The parrots were surprisingly calm given the circumstances and they attracted a lot of attention. Pteri in particular generated a lot of interest as she would say “Hi!” to people. I did have to warn people not to put their hands in the bird cages, as all the birds were tired and probably cranky. Micro, however, was happy to have attention and a lot of kids petted him. There were also a lot of other dogs waiting in the line, and even a few cats. As far as I know, all of the lodges taking evacuees were allowing pets of all types.
The shuttle bus arrived and luckily I had a lot of help getting the five birds onto the bus. They had never really ridden on buses before but they were very quiet. Once we arrived, we had to stay in a common area as the camp was saving rooms for people with small children or health problems. We were given a bunch of blankets and pillows by the staff.
I stacked the parrots by a wall and made sure they all had food and water. It was about 2 am by the time I got everyone settled. I also covered Pteri’s cage with a towel as she would screech when she saw people get too close to her cage. Having the towel over her cage seem to calm her down.
I tried sleeping on the floor. Admittedly I did not get much sleep as my dog was, understandably, rather agitated so he whined a lot. He was in a room with other dogs, a few cats, and many stressed and upset people. Many of these people had lost their homes and those who hadn’t were worried that they would. I had to take Micro outside a few times for bathroom breaks. At one point, I tied him to my heavy bag and tried to rest, but he backed out of his harness and wandered around the lodge. Someone found him and called my cell number (which was on Micro’s collar tags).
The next day, we were able to get a little room, which relieved me as I think the parrots were getting a stressed at this point. I was able to give each bird some time out of their cages to stretch their wings. We had a luggage cart they were able to perch on as well. They all seemed quite content once we got into a room. They were fairly quiet, and spent their time napping, preening, or eating.
The birds had enough pellets to eat, but I was able to get them some vegetables and fruit from the cafeteria. Evacuees were able to eat for free at the large cafeteria that is normally used by the workers who stay at the lodge.
We stayed at the lodge for a few days, but then they started to fly people out to either the Calgary or Edmonton airports. People and animals were being flown out at no cost from the oil sands aerodromes. A few of the oil sands mines have their own private aerodromes that they use to fly workers in and out and Shell is one of them. I signed up to fly back to Edmonton. All of my birds except Chiku (whose carrier would fit under the plane set) would have to fly in the cargo part of the plane but I was assured that they would be safe. I have to admit I was worried about them. I wrote each birds’ name, my name, and my cell phone number somewhere on each carrier.
To get onto a flight, I had to wait in a long line with the birds’ (in their carriers) on a luggage cart. Of course, they attracted a huge amount of attention. Pteri even delighted a group of people by saying “Good Morning” to them. Most of the time, though, I kept her cage covered with a towel, which seemed to reduce her stress levels. The other parrots were surprisingly calm.
We had to take another bus ride to get to the aerodrome but that went smoothly. Micro and Chiku rode in the passenger section of the plane and the other birds went to cargo.
All of the birds and Micro were fine after the flight and they got to ride in a taxi to get back to my place in Edmonton. I had a few spare cages there that my husband and I had intended to sell but hadn’t done so yet. The birds had to stay in these cages.
For a little while, I wasn’t really sure if all the things I had moved to Fort McMurray survived the fire. I saw on the news that several homes a couple blocks from my place had burned to the ground. However, I saw on a later report that my place was okay.
I wasn’t able to go back to Fort McMurray until June 3. There was no major damage to my place and I was able to move the five parrots back up there to their bigger cages. I was also able to retain my job up there. Sadly, many other people were not so lucky, as about 2500 homes were destroyed.
I had a place to keep my parrots while I was in Edmonton but not all evacuees had a place for their pets. One local parrot supply store, Meika’s Birdhouse, generously offered to look after parrots belonging to evacuees. There is a news story about this here:
I never really thought I would have to evacuate during an emergency. I’m glad I had enough carriers for my birds and that I was able to get them out safely.
Back to blogging again! I haven’t been blogging too much lately as I’ve been busy with a new job (I’m a wildlife biologist for an environmental consulting firm now) and I’ve been spending a lot of time working with this guy (the white/grey one):
Onto parrots: here’s a news article about Blue-throated Macaws out of Canada. Blue-throated Macaws look similar to the much more common Blue and Gold Macaws, but they are smaller, lack the green on the head, and have ‘blue’ beards instead of black ones. The feathers on the face are also blue on a Blue-throated Macaw (they are black on a blue and gold). Blue-throated Macaws are critically endangered and have a restricted range in the wild, as they are found only in north-central Bolivia.
I hope this release works out well. I admit I’d be very hesitant to release a bird that’s been living in captivity for 14 years into the wild. Perhaps they’ll wait and see which birds seem most suitable for release before letting them go? This is certainly a very generous move on the part of the breeder of these birds.
New life for endangered macaws from Cowichan
According to the World Parrot Trust, for every blue-throated macaw in the wild, there are 3,750 African elephants, 200 rhinos, 12 giant pandas, and six mountain gorillas.
That’s about to change, however slightly, with the release of 17 birds raised in Shawnigan Lake.
Those birds are among 27 who are leaving April Sanderson’s Shawnigan Lake aviary this week. Five breeding pairs will remain in Toronto, where African Lion Safari will take over Sanderson’s breeding program, while the majority will eventually head to Bolivia to be gradually released into their natural habitat.
It is the result of a lifetime with parrots.
“I’ve had parrots since I was a child,” said Sanderson, who will still have three blue-throated macaws – her pets – when all is said and done. “I got my first one when I was nine, and I’ve worked with them all my life.”
Sanderson started breeding parrots for the pet trade, but soon discovered that wasn’t a business she wanted to be part of, particularly since many pet parrots end up in unfortunate circumstances.
“A lot of people don’t know how to care for parrots,” she noted.
Not wanting to give up working with the birds altogether, Sanderson decided to breed them for the World Parrot Trust’s conservation program.
That has involved an extreme amount of permits and contracts, and the birds have all been quarantined at her aviary for the last five years, with no contact with other parrots or even other parrot owners.
It has also required at least three hours of labour a day, seven days a week, limiting family holidays, and cost hundreds of dollars a month to keep them fed and sheltered.
“It has been hard for my family to understand,” Sanderson admitted.
Sanderson’s five breeding pairs represent nine different bloodlines, probably one of the most diverse breeding groups in North America, which will help prevent inbreeding in the wild.
Parrot release programs are controversial, which Sanderson readily acknowledges.
“There are two teams,” she explained.
“One wants to protect the existing population, and the other wants to release more birds.”
The wild population of blue-throated macaws is estimated at around 125, within an area roughly the size of Vancouver Island. Breeding pairs usually have just one chick per year. The survival rates of those few chicks are low, and Sanderson believes releases are necessary.
“With numbers so low, I don’t believe they can recover without human intervention,” she said.
The efforts in Bolivia are modeled after the successful Ara Project, which has helped reintroduce two species of macaw in Costa Rica.
The birds are closely watched, and will begin their time in South America in huge aviaries, where they will be able to build their flight wings, transition to the wild diet, and get accustomed to the climate.
Despite all her hard work, and that of everyone involved in Toronto and Bolivia, Sanderson has accepted that there won’t be a 100 per cent survival rate once the birds are released, but still feels it’s worth it.
“They’re not all going to make it,” she said.
“I’m not being naive about it. I know some of them are going to die, but what are the species’ chances? Our generation could be the last one to see them.”
© Cowichan Valley Citizen – See more at: http://www.cowichanvalleycitizen.com/news/new-life-for-endangered-macaws-from-cowichan-1.1324494#sthash.DMPaZCoB.dpuf
(Note – if you are new to positive reinforcement training, I recommend reading the article on “clicker training parrots” before this one:)
Also, while this post starts by focussing on my dogs, the information is relevant to parrot keepers!
Meet Micro, my Maltese:
I adopted Micro at the Edmonton Humane Society last year. I had recently lost two of my older dogs to cancer (Compy the greyhound and Shayla the American Eskimo) and was left with Pharaoh, who is a golden retriever mix. I didn’t want Pharaoh to be an only dog, so I started to keep my eye out for a small dog that was gentle and calm around birds. I saw Micro’s picture on the humane society website and bolted right down there with my husband, my dog, and my Jenday Conure, Peggy.
Micro was still available when I got there. Yeah! Maltese tend to be adopted immediately when they show up at shelters around here. I had brought Peggy with me because I wanted to see how Micro would react to a bird. The employee who was helping us out with the adoption had never seen anyone bring in a parrot before, but I really wanted a dog who would be okay with parrots. I first held Peggy up to Micro when he was behind a window and Micro didn’t react at all. I then walked into Micro’s kennel holding Peggy and again, he did not react to her. Micro also got along fine with Pharaoh so we applied to adopt him and were approved.
Micro is a charming, smart and sweet little dog. I started doing some clicker training with him and he learned fast. He’s also quite athletic for a Maltese and I frequently take him for long walks. Even after a 10 km hike, he still has energy left.
Micro did have one little problem though: he’d get extremely excited if he saw another dog on a walk and he’d start barking like mad. Now, this is not a particularly unusual problem, especially for a toy breed. Micro is not actually aggressive and does not react to other dogs if he’s off leash. Additionally, if on leash, should Micro get to meet a dog he’s barking at, he’ll usually just sniff noses with it and then go on his way.
What to do? I picked up the book, “The Feisty Fido” by Patricia McConnell to get some pointers on dealing with a dog that gets yappy and excited at the site of another dog. The book was helpful and I decided to teach Micro to “watch me” on cue. That way, I could get his attention when another dog came around. Micro already knew “sit” and “down,” so if he saw another dog, I could pull him off the path, get his attention with the “watch me” cue and get him to sit.
I also took the advice in the book to start training Micro in a simple environment with few distractions. Then, I would gradually add distractions. I first started teaching Micro to “watch me” along with “sit,” “stay,” and “come” in my living room. Then I worked up to teaching Micro with Pharaoh present in the living room. Next came training sessions in the yard with or without Pharaoh, then on a quiet street, and finally, at a park with another dog in the distance.
Everything was going great. Micro would watch me, come, sit and go down in most situations. However, he’d still have a melt down if another dog came close to him.
Now what? I was using some high-quality commercial treats as reinforcers to train my dogs and they worked just fine in most situations. However, if another dog was close (say, within 10 m), Micro just didn’t seem motivated enough to watch me. The other dog was much more interesting!
We did more practise sessions in less distracting situations. I also decided to see if I could find a reinforcer that was more rewarding for Micro. I tried cooked liver. I don’t like dealing with the stuff, but Micro and Pharaoh? They love it. I fried some up and cut it into small pieces and ran the two dogs through some training exercises in the yard. I actually got faster responses using the liver, so I tried some exercises at the park. Again, I got very fast responses from some very focussed dogs. The dogs’ responses to cues were also fast when there were other dogs in the distance.
The big test came and I was pretty confident the dogs would respond to me with another dog nearby. One evening, with another dog passing us on a trail, I pulled my two dogs aside, asked them to “watch me” and asked them to sit.
It worked! They looked at me, ignored the other dog and sat down. Of course, I rewarded them with a snack of liver bits.
This little story illustrates two principles of good training that apply to many species, so if you are training an animal to give a specific response to a cue, keep the following in mind:
1. When training a new behaviour, start training in an area with no or few distractions, and then gradually increase the number of distractions present.
For example, when teaching a bird to step-up, start in an area the bird is comfortable in and that has few distractions present. Once the bird responds well, try training sessions in a new area that is just a bit different from where the bird first learned to step up. Gradually add distractions and soon, you will have a bird that will step up reliably no matter where he is. Many people will train an animal to respond to a cue in one setting and expect the animal to then respond to the cue in very distracting or stressful situations, such as at a vet’s office. This is a common mistake, because animals who have learned to respond to a cue in one location do not always respond to it in a completely new location. This is why dogs who have learned how to sit during an obedience class may not do so at a busy pet store. Vary your training locations and be patient to ensure that the animal responds to a cue in a variety of situations.
2. If an animal just doesn’t seem motivated or focussed, or if you have hit a training roadblock, try another reinforcer or try to increase the value of your reinforcer.
For example, the commercial treats worked okay with Micro, but the liver worked even better. Real meat tends to be a very powerful reinforcer for dogs and as a bonus, it’s a very healthful treat. Items that often work for training parrots include nuts, dried papaya, sunflower seeds, bits of grape or millet.
There are also things one can do to increase the value of a reinforcer for an animal. If using food, don’t have your the training sessions right after the animal has had breakfast or dinner. A food reinforcer just won’t be as reinforcing for the animal at that time.
Additionally, the specific food that is being used as the reinforcer can also be removed from the animal’s diet except for training sessions. If the animal has access to the food used as a training reward at all times, he may not be as motivated to work to get that food. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, as some birds or dogs may be motivated to work for pellets or kibbles, but frequently, a very tasty but infrequently recieved food will work very well as a reinforcer.
On a final note, some may wonder why I didn’t jerk Micro’s leash, scold him or otherwise punish him for the barking. Many prominent trainers go straight to such techniques in dealing with leash reactive dogs. I do not for several reasons.
First, using leash jerks on a small dog like a Maltese is outright nasty since such dogs are prone to collapsed tracheas. Secondly, some dogs (especially big dogs with tough necks) actually become desensitized to the leash jerks (or other punishments). Finally, the punishment may make the dog more edgy or nervous on leash, which is not what is wanted. The fallouts of punishment (especially poorly timed ones) can include aggression and stress. Teaching the animal what do to (focus on the owner) can work just as well (actually, even better) than punishing the animal. Finally, the ethical trainer will always use the least punitive approach that gives results.
Here’s something cool:
It’s a webcam of a bird feeder in Australia and a lot of the visitors appear to be Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Galahs, rosellas and Australian magpies.
Just to beef up this post, I’ll add some photos of birds I’ve seen at my bird feeder. Living in Canada, I don’t get the big, dramatic parrots that can be attracted to feeders in Australia, but I’ve gotten quite a few interesting visitors. Just in my yard (in the city) I’ve seen juncos, House Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, nuthatches, Northern Flickers, Blue Jays, magpies, waxwings, Pine Siskins, House Finches, and Common Redpolls.
Webmaster’s note: Consciousness is quite a difficult topic to deal with from a philosophical point of view. Even so, I find it a rather fascinating subject and read a lot about the philosophy of mind, particularly books written by Daniel Dennett. So, I found this article to be quite interesting and I’m sure many other readers will too! I do think that many animals are conscious to a certain degree, although I would assume the way they experience the world is drastically different from the way a human being does, primarily due to our unique ability to use very complicated, symbolic and abstract language.
By Susan Gaidos
One afternoon while participating in studies in a University of Oxford lab, Abel snatched a hook away from Betty, leaving her without a tool to complete a task. Spying a piece of straight wire nearby, she picked it up, bent one end into a hook and used it to finish the job. Nothing about this story was remarkable, except for the fact that Betty was a New Caledonian crow.
Betty isn’t the only crow with such conceptual ingenuity. Nor are crows the only members of the animal kingdom to exhibit similar mental powers. Animals can do all sorts of clever things: Studies of chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins and birds have found that some can add, subtract, create sentences, plan ahead or deceive others.
To carry out such tasks, these animals must be drawing on past experiences and then using them along with immediate perceptions to make sense of it all. In other words, some scientists would say, these animals are thinking consciously.
Many people (some scientists among them) would like to believe that consciousness sets the human mind apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. But whether in humans or other creatures, behavioral signs of cognizance all arise from the tangled interactions of neurons in the brain. So a growing number of scientists contend that animals with brain structures and neural circuitry similar to humans’ might experience something like human awareness, even if a bit less sophisticated.
Still, everyone agrees that consciousness is one of science’s great unsolved mysteries. Something goes on in the heads of people when they are seeing, thinking or feeling that does not occur during dreamless sleep. For two decades or so, researchers have been conducting studies to see what kinds of brain activity match up with those specific experiences.
Drawing on this information, scientists are now poised to explore the possible presence of consciousness in animals. Neurobiological information gleaned from studies of brain activity, together with studies of animal behavior, may help scientists identify various types of conscious states in animals, says neurobiologist David Edelman of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. He and collaborator Anil K. Seth outlined a framework for probing animal consciousness in the September Trends in Neurosciences.
“In many cases, we still know nothing about the brain areas that would control consciousness in a particular animal,” Edelman says. “But we now have data in the human domain that suggests where to look and what to look for.”
Past studies have shown that specific monkey brain structures do what they do in humans when the animals engage in certain activities, such as tracking objects in their visual field. “This raises the intriguing question whether conscious experience requires the specific structure of human or primate brains,” biologist Donald Griffin wrote in Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness in 2001.
But today, Edelman says, most neuroscientists agree that consciousness probably correlates with the degree of complexity of the nervous system, not just a specific brain architecture. And studies are exploring self-awareness beyond monkeys and apes, even beyond mammals.
Recent studies of bird brains reveal that avian gray matter is more similar to mammalian brains than not — a fact that might explain why many kinds of birds are able to manufacture tools (SN: 8/29/09, p. 5), solve mathematical problems (SN: 4/25/09, p. 15) and communicate in ways that even some primates can’t. And new work suggests that some invertebrates with wildly different brain structures, such as octopuses, have elaborate nervous systems and show high intelligence. They use tools, exhibit play behavior and have distinct personalities.
Studies designed to probe the conscious states of animals with various brain architectures may help scientists better understand the mechanisms underlying consciousnesses and how such levels of awareness evolved. John David Smith, a psychologist at the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York, says it’s important to keep in mind that consciousness is not an all-or-nothing event. “It didn’t just wink on like a fuse box in a house getting switched on,” he says. “There are levels and gradations of the capacity, and I think we have to bear that in mind.”
A consciousness loop
Everyone has an idea of what being conscious means, but nobody seems to be able to define it. In the 17th century, French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes declared that mind and body are separate, leaving the debate over the nature of consciousness to philosophers and theologians. Today scientists reject that notion, viewing consciousness as arising from the activity of neurons in the brain.
The late Francis Crick, who shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA’s structure, helped pioneer studies on the neural basis of consciousness. Working with his longtime collaborator, neuroscientist Christof Koch of Caltech, Crick argued that consciousness is synonymous with awareness — all forms of awareness — and that only by examining neurons and their interactions could scientists accumulate the kind of empirical knowledge needed to create a scientific model of it.
Edelman likens conscious experiences to “scenes” in which sensations, perceptions, thoughts and feelings are unified into a picture of the world. Higher-order consciousness — the kind that humans have — may include context that helps shape the experience, such as inner dialog, implicit expectations and voluntary control of thought and action. Such high-level cognizance makes people aware that they are aware. Primary consciousness, on the other hand, requires no self-reflection but does require a neuronal circuit capable of combining attention and short-term memory, Edelman says.
“It’s the ability to take in sensory information and form memories — whether those memories persist for tens of seconds or minutes — that allows one to interact in a meaningful way,” Edelman says.
Scientists are working to identify the neurological mechanisms that knit sensory input and memory into a unified perception. One possible mechanism is a curious electrical rhythm in the brains of animals exposed to sensory stimuli. Known as gamma oscillations, the waves reflect the synchronous activity of large interconnected networks of neurons firing together roughly 40 times per second. This beat spreads across the brain and seems to be especially strong when animals are concentrating on a single object — such as they might when tracking the scent of their favorite prey.
More recent studies of human brain activity show that consciousness creates other frequencies of oscillation that can be detected using an electroencephalograph, or EEG. In 2005, Edelman and colleagues published a paper in Consciousness and Cognition outlining a series of studies showing that recordings taken during tasks such as memorization or problem solving reveal a circuit of neural activity running in loops between the thalamus, known to help control alertness, and the cerebral cortex, the brain’s outer layer where sensory stimuli enter.
The presence of such activity is considered a correlate of human consciousness, rather than a direct measure, because “it’s hard to know the exact instant a person is being conscious,” Edelman says. “Still, 99 percent of the time if you’re scanning a person and they’re responding to something and they’re aware of something, that signature appears reliably.”
Such EEG patterns and cortical-thalamic interactions serve as a convenient reference point to probe for potential conscious states in other animals, he says. Birds, for example, don’t have a cortex, but recent findings on the structure of avian brains do reveal a robust higher-processing center intricately wired to deal with information in a similar way.
Singing in the brain
Bird brains have long had a bad rep, and until recently were considered to consist of one large basal ganglia forebrain and a few “primitive” structures. In 2005, Duke University neuroscientist Erich Jarvis showed this isn’t the case at all. In reviewing the neuroanatomy of birds, he noted that there is a higher-processing center — similar to humans’ cortical area — in the brains of all vertebrates, including birds, fish, reptiles and mammals. This area, critical for reasoning and remembering, is organized differently in birds and in mammals. In mammals, it appears as layered cells in the cortex, while in birds it is organized as clustered cells, Jarvis and colleagues pointed out in Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
Ann Butler, a neuroscientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., says that before Jarvis’ studies, many people thought the layering of cells, such as is found in the human cortex, was required to carry out complex behavior. Now scientists think that is not necessarily the case.
“For some reason, people think that because birds are far away from their genetic relationship to humans, that they’re one of the last groups of animals in which you should look for consciousness,” says Butler, who is working to identify neural features that may be capable of rendering consciousness in birds. “But I’m going to argue that they’re probably one of the first.”
Butler says Jarvis’ studies explain why some birds, such as the famous African gray parrot Alex, can do things that were once thought specific to primates, such as recalling events from distinct times or places. In a survey of the literature on neuroanatomy and behavior in birds, published in October 2006 in The Biological Bulletin, Butler and her colleagues pointed to studies showing that birds can carry out sophisticated cognitive processes generally associated with mammals, including the ability to play games in which they intentionally deceive others or the ability to design and make tools.
“Studies show some birds will hide objects differently when another animal sees them hide it, suggesting that the bird who was hiding an object is aware of other animals’ thought processes,” she says. “In most people’s minds, that can be defined as a conscious behavior.”
Though scientists have yet to find evidence in birds of the cortical loops associated with conscious states in humans, Jarvis’ studies have revealed at least one brain pathway with similarities to a pathway involved in human speech. His group found that in birds with vocal learning abilities — songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds — the brain structures for singing and learning to sing are embedded in areas controlling movement. Human brain structures for speech also lie adjacent to, and even within, areas that control movement.
Jarvis says the findings, reported in March 2008 in PLoS ONE, suggest that the brain pathways used for vocal learning evolved out of the same pathways that power limb and body movements. Because these brain areas serve a similar function in birds and humans, the areas may be a logical place to initiate neurobiological studies of consciousness in birds.
Invertebrates join big brain club
While birds and mammals share many neurological features, assessing conscious states in invertebrates, such as cuttlefish and octopuses, is more difficult. Unlike in mammals, where a large central brain is connected to a relatively small spinal cord, the octopus nervous system is divided into three parts. The two largest parts, the optic lobes for the eyes and the nervous system of the arms, sit outside the central brain capsule.
Despite this weird anatomy, octopuses share one brain trait with mammals and birds: They have a high brain-to-body mass ratio. Scientists have speculated that a bigger brain, when expressed as a percentage of body mass, may mean higher intelligence. And octopuses do seem to be one of the most intelligent invertebrates around. Studies show that they can easily learn and adapt new techniques for opening the shells of their favorite prey — clams and mussels — and can use clues to navigate through mazes.
Psychologist Jennifer Mather of the University of Lethbridge in Canada, who has studied octopuses for more than 35 years, says that the octopus brain is not just larger than that of most invertebrates, but also has areas dedicated to learning and memory. “That’s the kind of thing we humans have,” she says.
Although scientists have some general knowledge about cephalopod brain anatomy, they have limited knowledge about how it works, Edelman says. With Graziano Fiorito of the octopus behavioral biology laboratory at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples, Italy, Edelman is developing a recording system to collect EEG data and other brain signals as the creatures respond to visual cues.
“No matter how differently organized the brain is, there are fundamental properties — signaling, electrical activity, properties of certain kinds of neural networks — that are universally disposed across any animal who is able to have a conscious experience,” Edelman says. “The trick, with the octopus, will be to figure out where to tap into those signals.”
Considering how far removed cephalopods are, evolutionarily speaking, from mammals and birds, Edelman says studying these creatures may give researchers a broader perspective on consciousness.
“Cephalopods may be that one example of animals where we can show a true case of convergence, in the sense that conscious states may have appeared in these animals long before they appeared in mammals or in the birds,” he says.
That consciousness could arise several times over the course of evolution, appearing in distant lineages with different brain structures, is not at all surprising, scientists say, considering such states seem to emerge in species facing similar social and physical challenges.
Butler adds that scientists need to use caution in limiting the study of consciousness only to animals with highly developed cognitive systems.
“You can’t rule out consciousness where you don’t have complex behavior,” she says. “So what we need to do is identify a few places where it might be found, look to see what neural features there are, and then look to see if those are present across the board.”
Susan Gaidos is a freelance science writer based in Maine.
(Note: This was originally published in Good Bird Magazine)
Last month, I wrote about my brief visit to Sydney, Australia, where I was able to see wild Sulphur-crested Cockatoos at the botanic gardens and visit the Taronga Zoo. The brief visit to Sydney was a stopover on my way to my final destination, Christchurch, New Zealand. My primary reason for heading to Christchurch was to attend a conference, but I also planned to travel around the country to view some of its fascinating bird life. Because New Zealand is so isolated, no land mammals, besides a pair of bat species, have ever managed to colonize it without human assistance. As a result, many of New Zealand’s bird species have been free to occupy ecological niches normally held by mammals, so a diverse array of unusual, and often unbird-like, birds have evolved there.
While I was in Christchurch, I visited a few places where I could see some native birds in captivity. My first stop was the Southern Encounter Aquarium and Kiwi House, which was near the conference venue. Several freshwater and marine animals, and several species of native reptiles, were on display. There was also a kiwi enclosure housing two North Island Brown Kiwi. Kiwi displays are generally kept dark during the daytime, because kiwi tend to sleep in dens or burrows during the day.
Both kiwi were out when I went in to see them, and they were much larger and even more unusual looking than I had pictured them in my mind. Not only are they flightless, but they have lost their wings completely, and possess only small, clawed stubs in their place. These were hidden well under the kiwis’ shaggy, hair-like feathers. They also have cat-like whiskers on their faces, which seem help the birds find their way around in the dark. Their feet are very large and raptor-like, and have padded toes that allow them to move about silently. Their feet looked strong and the claws sharp, which presumably allow them to dig their burrows and defend themselves from intruders. Despite their sweet appearance, kiwi are very territorial.
While I watched the kiwi, they trudged about their enclosure, repeatedly thrusting their long, slender beaks into the deep soil and leaf litter, sniffing and feeling around for insects. Unlike most other birds, kiwi have a superb sense of smell and their nostrils are on the tips of their beaks, rather than being up at the top, as they are in parrots. Their eyesight is rather poor, which is unusual for a bird, so each kiwi often bumped into the walls of the enclosure. It was no big deal to them; they simply turned around and continued to single-mindedly search for insects. With their nocturnal habits, mainly insectivorous diet, and habit of resting in burrows, they seemed to me like a bird counterpart of a hedgehog.
Later on, I headed to the Orana Wildlife Park, which has many native animals on display, in addition to several other exotics, primarily from Africa. Many of the native birds were in a very large walk-in aviary. Kiwi were housed in a darkened kiwi house, and there were many wild birds in the pools around the park. Of all the birds I saw, the native Tui in the walk-in aviary stood out most. It was a gorgeous, dark, iridescent bird with a white, lacy cape around its neck and a pair of white disks under its throat. However, its song is what really grabbed my attention. It was quite complex, and consisted of some lovely, clear whistles interspersed with other noises, like coughs and clicks. Tui, it turns out, can produce a huge variety of sounds, because they possess two voice boxes. Some of the notes they can produce even go beyond the range of what humans can hear. And, like parrots or starlings, they can mimic sounds very well. However, they are not related to either one, and are part of the honey-eater family (Melphagidae). Some captive individuals even learn to mimic human speech very well. Tui are common and I saw many in the wild later on.
After the conference was over, I headed north to Wellington, which is on the southern edge of the North Island. My main plan there was to head to Kapiti Island, which is five miles off of the coast about a 45 minute drive north of Wellington. The island serves as a haven for several endangered bird species. Offshore islands are often set up as wildlife refuges because they can be cleared of introduced predators. Many of New Zealand’s native birds and reptiles are endangered because introduced rats, cats, possums, and stoats prey on them. Because New Zealand’s endemic birds evolved in the absence of mammalian predators, many of them have no natural defenses against them.
Unfortunately, the ship to Kapiti Island did not sail while I was there. So, I decided to drive about two hours north to the Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Centre. There was a visitor centre there, with many educational displays and a cage of baby Tuataras, reptiles native to New Zealand. There was also a large forest preserve, with some rare birds to view in large, natural aviaries. Many of them are part of breeding programs intended to produce young that could be released back into the wild into the forest preserve or on offshore island sanctuaries.
One of the highlights was the chance to see two Takahe. Takahe were once thought to be extinct, but some were found in 1948 in a remote part of the South Island. Takahe are a species of rail (Rallidae) and are large (63 cm long) and flightless. They are very striking with their dark purpley-blue bodies, moss-coloured backs, large, bright red beaks and matching short, red legs. There are only about 250 of these birds left, mostly on offshore islands and the mountains of Fiordland, in the far south.
The Takahe grazed in their large enclosure while I watched them. In the wild, they eat tussock grass, focusing mainly on the more nutritious base and leaving the tougher tops behind. They’ll also dig for roots and corms. Most rail species are shorebirds, but Takahe are capable of living in a variety of habitats, including alpine regions.
I spent a couple hours walking in the forest, watching and photographing the free-living birds that lived there. These included dozens of North Island Kaka, the large, brown and red forest parrot endemic to the island. Many of them were bred in captivity at the centre. A mix of captive bred birds and wild birds caught elsewhere were first released into the forest in 1996. The population has grown, likely due to predator control programs and the predator-proof nest boxes that were put up for them.
The Kaka weren’t always easy to spot, but I saw several flying above the trees. Their earth-toned feathers make them blend in well with their surroundings, but their loud calls often gave their locations away. Additionally, there was a very large, metal, parrot-feeder set up in a clearing in the forest, which made kaka viewing much easier. The kaka are given supplemental food each day there at three pm. When I approached it around two, several birds followed me, thinking I had their food. I didn’t, but the kakas were very interesting to watch. They are quite acrobatic, and often hung upside-down in the trees. They also gnawed on tree branches a lot, whose bark they can easily tear off with their very large, heavy beaks. They do this to find insects and grubs to eat.
At three, workers came to give the kakas their daily ration of corn and nuts. The Kaka were quite competitive at the feeder and often tried to steal food from each other. Smaller birds also arrived to clean up any bits the kaka dropped to the ground. The kaka were also given a solution of jam and water in a bottle to drink out of. Such a sugary solution is a part of their natural diet, because, like lories, kaka have bristled tounges that allow them to lick nectar off of flowers.
The next day I headed to the Te Papa Museum back in Wellington, which has a large section devoted to natural history. Unfortunately, some of the most magnificent of all of New Zealand’s birds exist now only as fossils or models in museums, because about 40% of New Zealand’s birds went extinct after humans arrived. These include the moa, a group of fifteen or so flightless birds, one of which stood up to 12 feet tall and weighed up to 550 pounds. They were likely hunted to extinction by the Polynesian settlers who arrived sometime between 800 and 1300 AD.
The moa were primarily grazers, with the taller forms being able to browse off of tall trees, like giraffes. They were the bird version of grazers like deer, bison, or wildebeests; or even like rabbits, as some species were small. Of course, where ever groups of large herbivores exist, there will be something around that hunts them. For the moa, this predator was, of course, another bird. It was an eagle – the mighty Haast’s Eagle – which was the biggest eagle to ever exist. They weighed from 22 to 28 pounds and had wingspans of about nine feet. The wingspan was actually somewhat small for its overall size, so they had to flap hard while in flight. They could, however, maneuver through dense forests. The Haast’s eagle probably went extinct when its prey, the moa, disappeared. The museum had a large model of a Haast’s eagle coming down on a giant moa. Models of other unusual, extinct birds were on display as well, which included tiny, flightless wrens, the endemic Whekau (or laughing owl), a huge, flightless goose, and the huia, a large, iridescent blue-black bird belonging to the wattle-bird family (Callaeidae), which is found only in New Zealand. Many of these went extinct after European settlers introduced cats and stoats to the island.
Next, I headed back to the South Island and took the TranzAlpine train across the Southern Alps, from Christchurch, on the Pacific Ocean, to Greymouth, on the Tasman Sea. The journey was awesome. The train first heads over the Canturbury Plains, and then it moves onto the foothills of the Alps. Once in the Alps, the train heads through the mountainous Arthur’s Pass National Park. Shortly after leaving the tiny village at Arthur’s Pass, the train enters an 8.5 km long tunnel. The scenery consists primarily of snow-capped, grassy mountains when the train enters the tunnel, and when it emerges, it travels through a deep green, thick rainforest.
While in the mountains, I tried to picture what the landscape would look like had there still been herds of moa grazing the hills. I also kept a look out for one of the birds that still lives there – a large, olive-colored parrot, reputed to be among the most intelligent of all the birds. These birds – Kea – live only in the mountains of the South Island. Their colours are somewhat drab, except the scarlet-coloured feathers on the underside of their wings. However, their personalities are anything but drab. They are infamous for creating trouble for people by tearing rubber parts off cars, picking through garbage and backpacks, finding their ways into cabins, and even killing sheep.
I rented a car in Greymouth and headed south down the coast. On the way, I did some hiking in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Then, it was on to Queenstown, in the middle of the south half of the South Island where I turned south, then West, to get to Te Anau. It was a fantastic drive through some gorgeous landscape, but alas, I saw no Keas. However, many bird species, like Pukeko, a more slender version of the Takahe, and Paradise Shelducks, one of New Zealand’s endemic ducks, were easy to spot. There is a also Wildlife Center in Te Anau, which has many native birds on display in large, outdoor aviaries. Some are animals that were injured and were being rehabilitated for release back into the wild. There was a pair of Takahe on display and an aviary full of Antipodes Island Kakariki. These are similar to the more common Red- and Yellow-fronted Kakariki, although they are a bit larger and are solid green. What makes Antipodes Island Kakariki remarkable is the natural habitat that they manage to survive in. They are native to the subantarctic Antipodes Islands, which lie about 650 km southeast of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a weird place to find parrots: there are no trees there, and it’s often chilly and windy. The island is uninhabited by people and is classified as a nature preserve, and a permit is needed to land there. They share the Antipodes Island with the Reischek’s Parakeet, Cyanoramphus erythrotis, which used to be classified as a subspecies of the Red-fronted Kakariki.
After Te Anau, I headed north up to Milford Sound. It was there that I found the bird I was looking for. I arrived at the sound and got out of my car to go for a walk. One of the first birds I noted was a beautiful White Heron standing in the water. These heron are very rare in New Zealand; only about 120 live there. While watched the heron, I heard a loud, shrill cry. Kea! There was a family of three up by the parking lot. Kea often hang around parking lots, since the cars make interesting chew toys to them.
The three kea seemed to be a mated pair and their offspring. Juvenile kea can easily be differentiated from the adults because juveniles have some orange color around their beaks which disappears when they hit sexual maturity. The juvenile was extremely noisy and constantly squealed at and bumped into his parents. He tended to approach them in a hunched over posture, because adult kea are very tolerant to juveniles in that pose. However, once he showed the red color under his wings to his parents, the juvenile was quickly pinned and verbally reprimanded by one of his parents. Apparently, showing the red under the wings is a threat, so the juvenile was acting a bit like a mouthy teenager. As long as he didn’t show the red under his wings, nearly anything he did was tolerated by the parents.
Food is tricky for keas to find in the winter, so the two adults spent a lot of time digging in the ground with their long, sharp beaks for roots to eat. Keas are generalists and will eat nearly any edible thing they find. Unlike other parrots, they can actually be carnivorous and will eat the young of other bird species and the carcasses of dead sheep. Occasionally, they will kill adult sheep, by pecking at their backs until they bleed. The sheep may then die of blood loss or an infection.
I watched the keas until it became dark, and then I headed up to the motel. I dragged my suitcase in from the car and spotted a kea underneath a truck. Looking around with the flashlight, I found another two. Were these the same ones from before? At any rate, I was glad I got extra insurance on the rental car, but I wondered if it covered kea damage. I went into the motel room to read, and I could hear the keas running around on the boardwalk outside my room. They squealed a bit too, and when I went to sit outside, they gathered around me and wrestled with each other a bit. They were not shy of people at all.
The next, and final, stop on my trip was to be Stewart Island, a 1746 km2 size island a one-hour ferry ride from Bluff, a town on the south end of the South Island. Stewart Island is a great place for bird watchers, as the island contains no stoats, which are extremely efficient bird predators. It is also sparsely populated, with only 420 people living there, mostly in the town of Oban. As a result, bird life is abundant there.
On the ferry ride to Stewart Island (or Rakiura), I managed to see several mollymawks (medium albatrosses) gliding gracefully over the waters. With wingspans of about two meters, they were a magnificent sight. I also spotted a few seals and shags (cormorants) from the ferry, and there were a few oystercatchers along the beach where the ferry landed. South Island Kaka and Red- and Yellow-fronted Kakariki are easy to find right in the town of Oban, as were Tui and Bellbirds. Tui and Bellbirds have clear, ethereal-sounding voices, so the dawn chorus in the forest on Stewart Island is very beautiful.
From Oban, a five-minute boat ride can take you to Ulva Island, a 266 ha island set up as a bird sanctuary. It has been cleared of introduced predators, and has several walking trails for visitors. I headed over there in the morning and asked the boatman to come back in four hours to pick me up. It really only takes an hour or two to walk all the trails on the island, but I ended up wanting more time there. Birdlife was super-abundant and most of the birds did not seem too afraid of me. The first one I saw was a small Stewart Island Robin, which actually came and tugged on my pants when I sat down to listen for birds. Saddlebacks, rare brown and black birds, would also approach me quite closely.
Weka are common on Stewart and Ulva Island. These are chicken-sized, brown, flightless rails and they are truly fearless. I saw a few along the beach and they treated me as though I wasn’t even there. One picked through a clump of seaweed for food as I sat nearby taking pictures.
Other birds on the island weren’t quite so bold. I saw several Kakariki darting through the trees and foraging on the ground. They have a reputation of being quite active in captivity, and they are like that in the wild, too. They were too fast for me to get any decent photos of. I could also hear the flapping wings of Keruru (native pigeon) from high in the canopy. I could often spot them with binoculars, and they are quite attractive. They are at least three times the size of the rock pigeons that are common in cities in North America, and they are white with green heads and green and purple wings. South Island Kaka were also present on the island. They weren’t always easy to see, but hearing their calls was never a problem, and I also saw a lot of trees with bark that had been peeled away by Kaka.
Later on, I tried to go “kiwi-spotting” along the beaches on Stewart Island during the evening and the following morning by trekking along different beaches. Kiwi are usually nocturnal, but on Stewart Island, they will come out on the beach to forage at dawn and dusk. I did hear a few, as they are quite loud, but I saw none. I did see more Kaka, Kakariki, fernbirds, various seabirds, ducks, raptors, native pigeons, bellbirds, Tui, fantails, white-eyes, and Weka by hiking around.
I took the ferry back to the South Island and headed home. The big disadvantage to traveling to New Zealand is the 12-13 hour trans-Pacific flight. However, it was an excellent trip and one I would definitely recommend for bird and nature lovers.
Here’s my final post about my trip to Brazil, with photos of the reptiles, invertebrates and fish I saw.
For reptiles, I saw several lizard species and two species of caiman. No snakes! I actually like snakes and was hoping to see a yellow anaconda, which occur in the Pantanal region. They are smaller than the green anacondas that occur in the Amazon that are famous for being the world’s heaviest snake species.
Small lizards were everywhere and they tended to be quite skittish since a lot of different animals will prey on them. I had to be very still and quiet to get pictures.
I saw several of the below species running around. The males would court the females by bobbing their heads and inflating a colorful throat pouch. Males would also try to chase each other away.
Yacare caimans are everywhere in the Pantanal. They eat fish and have very poor eyesight so birds aren’t afraid of them. They are not dangerous to people either.
I also saw a few green iguanas and ameivas. The small iguanas and ameivas were very skittish, but they had to come out in the day to bask to raise their body temperatures. The iguanas would also graze during warm parts of the day.
The town Bonito attracts a lot of ecotourists and there are a lot of farms nearby that offer hikes, boat trips, and horseback rides. However, Bonito is most famous for the rivers in the nearby countryside that are very clear and are full of colourful fish. So, snorkeling is a popular activity offered at a lot of farms in the area. I went snorkeling at a place called “Rio de Prata,” and was able to rent an underwater camera in town. It was awesome – the river was very clear and there was a huge variety of fish – everything from schools of fluorescent little tetras to catfish to large Pacus.
Butterflys are quite common. I particularly liked this one, with clear wings:
And that’s it! Obviously, I enjoyed the trip a lot. I actually hope to go back to Brazil someday with my husband. He’d love the Pantanal region and I loved it enough to want to go back. It’s wonderful for people who enjoy bird-watching and seeing wildlife since animals are everywhere. I’d also like to see more of the country including the Amazon and the Atlantic rainforest.