Dec 24, 2019 | Featured Web Article

Chickadee Memories

How can a chickadee recall the location and quality of hundreds or thousands of morsels? Science reveals that chickadees have a more robust hippocampus than other birds that do not maintain food caches.
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Do you have a problem with forgetting where you placed your reading glasses, cell phone, or car keys? Chickadees can't afford that kind of memory lapse. Forgetting where they've stored their seeds can be a matter of life and death. Fortunately, these little birds' brains have adapted to ensure that they won't face a bout of lethal forgetfulness.

Beginning in late summer, a chickadee will visit backyard bird feeders up to a few hundred times per day to snatch up seeds to store for the winter. Each seed gets hidden in an individual location in a behavior called "scatter-hoarding." These cache spots include behind loose bark, under fallen leaves, stuck into knotholes, and even tucked into human-made structures like roof shingles and house siding. The majority of sites are within about 130 feet of the feeder from which the chickadee pilfered the seeds.

Spreading its seeds around a variety of locations helps ensure that the chickadee won't have its entire winter stash stolen by a squirrel or another bird. The seeds will be there through winter storms and easily accessible after long, energy-depleting, freezing nights.

What's impressive is that chickadees not only remember the location of every seed they've hoarded for 28 days or longer, but they also strive to retrieve the higher-quality seeds before dipping into the rest of the stash. And if they see that a particular seed has gone missing, they will acquire a replacement seed and store it in a new spot that has not been compromised by competitors.

How can a chickadee recall the location and quality of hundreds or thousands of morsels? Science reveals that chickadees have a more robust hippocampus than other birds that do not maintain food caches. This area of the brain associated with memory expands within a chickadee's skull up to 30% larger in the fall, creating new brain cells in the process. After winter ends and chickadees aren't reliant on their hidden food stores to survive, the hippocampus contracts down to its original size.

Much like a computer, chickadees clear their memory to forget all of their seed-hiding spots. This mental "delete history" allows them to avoid becoming confused when the birds begin scatter-hoarding again when autumn returns.

Now, where did I put those keys?





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  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021