Bird brains or smart operators?

  • July 17, 2014
Bird brains or smart operators?

Corina Logan's research aims to bring together biology and psychology to shed new light on the cognitive abilities of birds and other species.

Corina Logan’s research aims to bring together biology and psychology to shed new light on the cognitive abilities of birds and other species.

Her overarching interest is in the links between brain size and cognition and much of her research has focused on birds. She says she is keen to show people that birds are smarter than they think.

Although she had done work on birds before she came to Cambridge, it was only when she started her PhD at the University under Professor Nicky Clayton that she became truly fascinated by them.

Her current work at the University of California, Santa Barbara compares the approach of grackles and New Caledonian crows to problem solving. Both are highly innovative, but grackles have smaller brain sizes.  

However, from next May she will return to Cambridge and focus on an entirely different species – red deer. It’s part of a trail that allows her to find answers to her main question about brain size and cognitive skills.

Corina [2008] identified with animals from an early age (she likes to call them non-humans to remind humans that we are animals too). She was born in Seattle and grew up in the countryside just north of the city surrounded by animals. At six years old she became a vegetarian because she felt she could not eat her “friends”. “My love of animals really influenced me from a young age,” she says.

Corina, whose father worked in telecommunications, was homeschooled with her younger brother by her mother. Her parents chose a hands off, informal approach to learning. Corina and her brother travelled with their father for work and learnt mainly through experiencing the world around them.

Between the ages of seven and 16 Corina was an active member of a horse 4-H club for children through which she took part in horse shows and learnt about everything from managing a farm to looking after the health of horses. “I was obsessed with horses. My bedroom walls were covered in horse pictures. I loved working with horses. You form such a close team,” she says.

Corina also joined a 4-H leadership club and organised activities at a county level.

At 16 she sat a general equivalency diploma. “I felt I wasn’t doing anything and I wanted to get this thing called ‘school’ over,” she says. She decided to start an associate degree at a community college. However, she soon found herself struggling and not enjoying formal study so she got a job working in Americorps, a civil society programme which engages adults in intensive community service work. Corina worked with teenagers educating them about the healthcare resources available to them.

The job earned her credits which went towards doing a university degree. At 19 she went back to Skagit Valley College where she now flourished in the academic environment and “discovered biology”. The science she had done up until that point was very informal and what she now calls “common sense”. Once she really got hold of science, however, she became very passionate about it, gaining high grades.

She transferred to Evergreen State College after two years and finished her degree in five years as she was working part time teaching after school programmes at the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club while she was studying. She chose Evergreen because she was keen to do research and they placed a big emphasis on this. In her final year she spent three months in Costa Rica studying the play behaviour of coatis, a relative of the raccoon. This research was published nine years later.

She knew from this experience and from doing her own independent research in summer vacations that she wanted to do a PhD, but she didn’t know what she wanted to do it on so she worked on various research projects, including a project at Stanford on bird conservation in Costa Rica, for three years before she applied to the University of Cambridge. The Costa Rica project brought her up close to different species of birds and she became fascinated by their variations.

Corina chose Cambridge because in the UK she could start research from the beginning of her PhD, unlike in the US. She was also drawn to her supervisor Professor Clayton in part because she was looking for a strong female role model. Professor Clayton specialises in animal cognition and Corina was attracted to this work due to her earlier work on play behaviour. “Through Nicky’s work with birds I became fascinated by the differences between them and mammals,” she says. “I wanted to give something back and show humans that birds were smarter than they thought.”

From the first month of her PhD she started collecting data on three different species of corvids (birds in the crow family). During her time at Cambridge she published a major paper based on biological field research she did for the University of Washington in Costa Rica which fed into the cognitive behavioural approach favoured by Professor Clayton. The paper focused on exposing a new group of birds that may be able to remember the past to plan for the future.

Corina refers to the different bird species she has studied as people. “A respect develops when you study them for several years,” she says. “They have their own characters. You cannot think of them as just dumb birds.” She adds that species like jackdaws are less approachable by humans, but one can still see their individual personalities. However, other species like New Caledonian crows readily interact with humans, allowing researchers to get to know them as individuals.

Before she had completed her PhD Corina started applying for grants and fellowships so she could pursue her ideal research project. In Costa Rica she had become interested in the great tailed grackle. “It eats food off people’s plates and looks you in the eye. It looks really smart,” she says. “In Costa Rica they are abundant. Very little research had been done on them so I pitched a project on them and it got funded.”

She started her junior research fellowship at the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara [UCSB] in 2012. The fellowship was due to last two years, but has been extended to three. She has a National Geographic Society Waitt grant to do fieldwork on the New Caledonian crows, and hopes to start research on the grackles shortly and to complete the project by early next year.

She already has a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in the Department of Zoology at Cambridge lined up for May and will study red deer, They do not have large brains relative to other mammals, but Cambridge has a unique data set of red deer skulls which will allow her to probe further into the factors that influence brain size. The fellowship will also allow her to work with graduate students and broaden the scope of her research.

At the same time, Corina is working on a number of other projects, including a UCSB project on bird dance. “It all feeds into the same overall question about cognition,” she says, “and into an interdisciplinary approach which brings together biology and psychology to give new insights into how the brain works.”

*Picture of Corina with a Eurasian jay at Cambridge (photo credit: Julia Leijola).

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