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.

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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  • That doesn't address my concern about the bird houses. I'm on a tiny piece of property (40x100) so there's not much room to plant a heck of a lot or places birds could put nests once the bird houses are gone.
    by Linda DiPierro, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • Plant some native plants in your yard that will attract pollinators and produce berries and nuts. There should be a local society that has a list of recommended plants, shrubs, and trees.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • Same concerns here. See above post. For your situation I would consider planting a few native plants that will naturally produce berries and seeds that the birds in your area need to survive. Try planting some that will yield foods for all seasons.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • I've thought about this myself. One thing I considered doing is leaving behind some bird food and a gift card to my local wild bird store with a note asking the new homeowners to please continue feeding the birds. Don't know how well that work but it's worth a try.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • thanks for the article. I believe that I may have spotted my first hairy woodpecker this morning. we see the downy woodpecker often. it's small. the hairy woodpecker, when compared with the downy, is HUGE. also, the downy feeds at the feeder like most birds--standing upright. This bird, because of its size, hung from the feeder perch with most of it's body below the feeder--like the red belly woodpeckers that we see often. we live is strasburg va. is it possible that we saw a hairy woodpecker this morning?
    by PEretired, Sat, 23 May 2020