A Moment of Science

Cognitive Maps And Bird Navigation

Humans use a process called "Constructing a cognitive map" to mentally visualize their surroundings. Do birds do this too?

birds on the beach

Photo: Mike Baird (Flickr)

Birds are able to navigate even if they do not know where they are.

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.

Constructing A Cognitive Map

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

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.

An Interesting Experiment

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–”halfway between points a and b”–suggests a cognitive map in use.

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    These birds bury seeds for later.

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