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Birdmaps

When you find yourself in a new town, you probably walk around it a few times in order to figure out where things are in relation to other things. In a little while it becomes easy. The bank? Hmm. Ah, yes. Go down to the end of Finkle Street and turn left. Third building on the right.

That process is sometimes called “constructing a cognitive map.” Cognitive maps are a mental version of the town you can consult, in order better to get around in the real town.

Now here’s a question. Do birds do this?

Probably not, you might say. They’re just birds, but then, they navigate very well. Maybe so! Does anyone know?

Psychologist Alan Kamil of the University of Nebraska wanted to find out. He did some experiments on a species known as Clark’s Nutcracker. These birds bury seeds for later, and show great ability at finding their stashes again from the air. Guessing that they might be locating their seed stashes based on their position with respect to other objects on the ground, Kamil buried seeds halfway between two conspicuously colored pipes in a large testing space. The birds found the seeds. Then Kamil moved the pipes farther apart, moving the seeds to the new half-way point. Sure enough, the birds went right to the new location, even in five different trials!

What does this suggest? Presumably, in the birds’ minds, the seeds were to be found “halfway between the big pipes.” Though it doesn’t absolutely prove it, that idea in itself suggests a cognitive map in use.

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