Sunday, January 08, 2012

If I did have a “hummingbird mind,” I could rule the world

A few weeks ago, a commenter on these pages made a snide comment about my brain. I am as capable of taking snide comments as I am in dishing them out. Actually, if I were to talk blog talk, I’d have to say I am good at snark, as snide has fallen out of favor in this new hyper-tech era.

The commenter, who was of the conservative persuasion, said that me and my readers must have brains the size of a hummingbird brain. He was inferring that we are peabrains, as a hummingbird brain is the size of a pea.

I can accept this criticism. But the comment did cause me to seek out information on hummingbird anatomy. The pea-brained hummingbird has the largest brain-size-to-body-mass index in the bird kingdom. It’s is approximately 4.2 percent of its body weight. If my brain were 4.2 percent of my weight, it would weigh 9.66 pounds. My head would be the size of a pumpkin but much more lethal. The late Kurt Vonnegut used to say that most of the world's ills could be blamed on the fact that human brains are too big for our own good. Imagine if they were three times bigger!

If my body weight were to be consistent with human anatomy, I would have to weigh almost 700 pounds. This would cut down on my mobility. But my huge brain would allow me to control puny-brained normal humans. They would do my bidding. I would command them to build a mobility device that allowed me to flit from food source to food source. I could hover hummingbird-like over this food source (McDonald’s, for instance), dart in to snag a Big Mac with my long forked tongue, and then dart out again, hovering over the local McD’s, never losing my place. I could exhaust the entire Big Mac supply of the McD’s on Yellowstone Blvd., and then dart over to the one on Lincolnway or College Ave., here in Cheyenne. I would always know where the food was located, and whether it was ready or not. All the while, I could locate a mate, if any were willing to date a big-brained, 700-pound winged human male with huge eyes, a long beak and forked tongue. I’d also be able to fight off any rivals who arrive on the scene. If I was forced to smite a rival, I would have to take a few minutes away from feeding. But not too long – hummingbirds eat a dozen meals per day, consuming many times their own body weight.

How do I know this? I found this info at on Ron Patterson’s excellent Gardening for Wildlife web site:
In a study that appeared in Current Biology, Susan Healy and Jonathan Henderson of the University of Edinburgh describe their fieldwork with rufous hummingbirds in the Canadian Rockies. 
Can a hummingbird's brain actually think? 
Tallying visits by three male rufous hummers, the researchers found the birds could distinguish between the 10-minute and 20-minute “flowers” and remember their locations and when they had last drained them. Over several days, they reliably returned to the “flowers” just after they had been refilled; once again, a matter of what, when, and where. 
It makes sense for hyperactive birds like hummers to maximize their foraging efficiency. Return to a flower too soon, and the nectar won’t have been replenished; too late, and a rival may have beaten you there. 
With a long migration route and a short breeding season, rufous hummers can’t afford to waste time and energy in the search for food. 
Healy and Henderson point out that their male hummers were able to track the timing of nectar supplies while defending their territories and courting females. So you have not only episodic memory but serious multitasking. Several studies show hummers know when a flower is ready. 
All this when a hummingbird's brain is smaller than a pea. 
No one knows how large a hummer's hippocampus is, absolutely or relatively. But the bird doesn’t have a whole lot of neurons to work with. It may not the size of the hummingbird brains that enables these kinds of mental processes, but the complexity of the wiring. Smaller does not necessarily equate to dumber: the minuscule brain of the hummer appears to have the bandwidth to do what it needs to do.
One of the great things about Ron’s site is the Bible quote he puts on each page. I’m not a Bible reader or a quoter, but I like the fact that he writes with such scientific detail and such passion, but also finds time to dig up verse to punctuate his narrative. He’s a serious multi-tasker, just like a hummingbird. Here’s the quote he provided on the page about hummingbird brains:
“For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11
Not a jeremiad in any way.

In conclusion, I’d like to say this: Do your homework before making comments on this site, especially as it relates to the lives of hummingbirds. They are amazing creatures, preferable to snarky humans in so many ways.


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