Ornithologists Challenge 'Birdbrained' And 'Eat Like A Bird' : Short Wave Welcome back to "Animal Slander," the series where we take common expressions about animals and debunk them with science. Today on the show, we tackle "birdbrained" and to "eat like a bird" with biologists Corina Newsome and Alejandro Rico-Guevara.

Follow Maddie and Emily on Twitter. Their usernames are @maddie_sofia and @emilykwong1234. Plus, send us your animal slander—and questions and praise—by emailing the show at shortwave@npr.org.

Animal Slander! Debunking 'Birdbrained' And 'Eat Like A Bird'

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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SOFIA: ...From NPR.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Order in the court - be seated.

SOFIA: Hey, everybody. Maddie Sofia in the house - no, really, in my house, back in the closet.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Like me - Emily Kwong here, also reporting from home with some animal slander.

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SOFIA: Yes (laughter).

KWONG: We're back.

SOFIA: Honestly, it feels so good to be doing another episode of Animal Slander - you know, just really sitting in our love of animal facts and truth and justice.

KWONG: Absolutely. If you haven't heard an episode of Animal Slander before, this is how it works. We look at common phrases about animals.

SOFIA: And then we look at the science to try to figure out whether or not they are true or slander.

KWONG: It's the type of nonsense we need right now. We could all use a little break these days.

SOFIA: You know who needs a break, Kwong? Birds. The stuff people say about them.

KWONG: Oh, totally - like the phrase bird-brained, implying someone's scatterbrained or dumb.

SOFIA: Yeah. Or saying somebody is eating like a bird when they don't eat very much.

KWONG: Which is some weird diet culture nonsense.

SOFIA: It's pure garbage. All right, Kwong. Here we go.

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SOFIA: Let's do this.

KWONG: All right. Today on this show, the courtroom of science will hear the cases of bird-brained and eat like a bird. Proceed.

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KWONG: All right, Sofia, first up - bird-brained.

SOFIA: Again, people say this when they're implying somebody needs to get it together or they're scattered.

KWONG: Yeah, clearly not a compliment.

SOFIA: Right. So for more on this, you talked to Corina Newsome.

KWONG: Hello.

CORINA NEWSOME: Hi, Emily.

KWONG: Yeah. Hey. How are you?

NEWSOME: I'm good. How are you?

KWONG: Good. Good. My name's Emily Kwong...

Corina's a grad student at Georgia Southern University studying birds. And before that, she was a zookeeper. She's got a deep well of experience to draw upon for today's episode.

What's your relationship with that phrase - bird-brained?

NEWSOME: I usually get a little bit offended when I hear the word bird-brained. As a person who has spent a lot of time training birds for the purpose of education and showing off their natural behaviors, I've gotten a chance to look very closely at how birds think and understanding the way that they think and being very impressed with their cognition. And so when I hear people use bird-brained as an insult, I am then personally insulted.

SOFIA: You got to stand by your bird. Starting off strong, Kwong.

KWONG: I mean, you got to set the tone. OK. Trusted expert witness Corina Newsome approaching the bench.

SOFIA: (Laughter). Hit us with that sweet, sweet evidence.

KWONG: Corina says birds are overall pretty smart. Cognition depends on the species, of course. But birds in the corvid family, like crows and ravens, are wicked smart.

SOFIA: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. They can memorize faces. There were super-cool experiments on that. And some crows can make tools, which is usually associated with primates.

KWONG: Correct. And you know what other birds are smart? Parrots.

NEWSOME: They are incredibly social animals. They are also very skilled at mimicry, at recognizing - even memorizing - patterns, at picking up on behavioral cues from humans.

KWONG: Corina says that parrots are tough pets precisely because they're so smart. You have to give them mental stimulation.

NEWSOME: And if you don't, they're going to occupy themselves, which oftentimes may end up looking like biting through your furniture, tearing apart your shoes, wreaking havoc on your home.

KWONG: Parrots need constant mental stimulation or else it's just havoc. And all of this has to do with the connections inside their brains.

SOFIA: Ooh, do I smell a little data, Kwong?

KWONG: Oh, you do. You better believe you do. So a couple of years ago, this study came out that looked at brains across different types of birds.

NEWSOME: Songbirds, parrots, various birds of prey.

KWONG: And the study looked closely at this part of the brain called the medial spiriform nucleus, which helps connect the cerebellum to the telencephalon. The cerebellum is at the back of the brain and deals with muscle movements, balance, that kind of stuff. Do you know that is?

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah. I know stuff, Kwong.

KWONG: OK, fine. Well, do you know what the telencephalon is?

SOFIA: Yes, I do.

KWONG: Go right ahead. What is it?

SOFIA: OK. All right. Give me a second. There's a lot of stuff in the brain. Yeah. It's this really intricate set of structures in the brain that are required for some of the most complex and evolved functions.

KWONG: Yeah, you clearly Googled that.

SOFIA: What? I can't - I'm sorry. You're breaking up. I'm going through a tunnel.

KWONG: Ma'am, you are in a closet. You can't be going through a tunnel at the same time. All right.

SOFIA: You don't know me.

KWONG: Anyway - moving on. The key here is that the bridge connecting these two parts, the medial spiriform nucleus, in birds is a mark of strong cognitive abilities. And parrots have an unusually large medial spiriform nucleus for their size.

SOFIA: So the birds have small little noggins but really advanced little noggins.

KWONG: Oh, yeah - good point. That was my follow-up question to this research Corina was talking about, too.

NEWSOME: And so despite the fact that birds have, like, very, very small brains - usually like the size of, like, a walnut for sometimes an even larger-brained bird - those brains are the most effective at packing in neurons compared to any other brains, including mammalian brains.

KWONG: So you hear that? Birds are punching above their weight when it comes to neural density.

SOFIA: Honestly, I'm not surprised.

NEWSOME: So some birds have about as many neurons in their forebrain than, like, a primate. So because their brain has some complex folding and the neurons are physically closer together inside of the brain, they can have a large number of neurons accomplishing a lot of the same goals that animals with bigger brains but fewer neurons have.

SOFIA: OK, Kwong - the verdict on bird-brained?

KWONG: Oh, you know what it is, Maddie. Do I even need to say it? Slander.

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SOFIA: (Laughter) Oh, my God - you're getting so good at that.

KWONG: You taught me how. Good Lord.

SOFIA: OK, OK - my turn. So I looked into the phrase eat like a bird.

KWONG: Oh, yeah - very curious about this. People will say that it suggests someone doesn't eat very much, that they're, like, peckish.

SOFIA: Right. Which you know the official NPR SHORT WAVE position is that - just don't comment on how much or how little somebody eats - you know what I mean? - generally speaking.

KWONG: Yeah, mind your own food business.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Yes. So OK. Let us start our examination of eat like a bird by considering the simple hummingbird. Do you know how they eat, dear Kwong?

KWONG: No. No, I do not, dear Maddie. But I fear - (laughter) but I fear you are about to tell me in excruciating detail. First of all, let me start off by saying you're welcome. Second, let me introduce you to...

ALEJANDRO RICO-GUEVARA: Alejandro Rico-Guevara.

SOFIA: He is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Washington...

RICO-GUEVARA: And curator of birds at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.

SOFIA: But before that, when he was a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, he was part of one of my favorite bird eating-related experiments ever. So hummingbirds have really long tongues that dart out to get at nectar. And for a long time, scientists thought that the tongue worked like a tiny, tiny little tube so small that the nectar kind of just shoots up the tongue on its own by what's called capillary action. Ale (ph) and his boss, Margaret Rubega, they did not buy this capillary action theory.

KWONG: Oh, huh.

RICO-GUEVARA: We were discussing how the equations and the predictions from those capillary equations don't really make sense in terms of what the actual behavior of the hummingbirds in nature looked like.

KWONG: Hmm.

SOFIA: But here's the thing, Kwong - one does not simply eyeball a hummingbird tongue. These little tongues are as thin as a fishing line, and they dart in and out of the beak at, like, 15 to 20 times per second.

KWONG: Whoa.

RICO-GUEVARA: So to solve these problems, what we devised were tiny transparent flowers with flat sides so we could film through it and see the action happening. And we needed high-speed video because it's happening so fast. So we were filming between 1,000 and 2,000 frames per second just to see how the tongue would interact with the nectar.

SOFIA: So cool.

KWONG: All right. So they made little glass flowers so they could film through them? That's pretty genius.

SOFIA: Yeah. And what they saw, Kwong, it changed the hummingbird game.

RICO-GUEVARA: What we saw is that the hummingbird tongue, when it touches the nectar - first, the portion that is inside the liquid unfolds and it has little fringes on the edges of those tubes. And those open up.

KWONG: Whoa. So it definitely isn't just a static little tube.

SOFIA: No, not even close. As the tongue is shooting out of the beak, it's compressed by the beak. But when the tip of the tongue hits the nectar, it splits into two, like a little snake tongue. And those tips, they have these little flaps that open, and those flaps fill up with nectar.

KWONG: That is so amazing. So they got to see all these wild hummingbird parts in action.

SOFIA: Yes. And when the rest of the tongue - like the back of the tongue - it gets out of the beak, it's no longer compressed. And then - boom - that part fills up, too.

RICO-GUEVARA: Super-fast - and when I say super-fast, I mean less than a hundredth of a second.

SOFIA: And so as the tongue rolls back into the beak, these flaps then kind of close on themselves, hanging onto the nectar as it makes its way back up to the bird.

KWONG: So it's like a retractable tongue spoon.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KWONG: Is that right?

SOFIA: Well, I've...

KWONG: Am I getting it?

SOFIA: I've never heard anybody describe it that way. But yeah, sure. Parts of the flaps have spoon-like qualities. It's actually called a nectar trap. And that nectar is only released into the throat when the hummingbird goes to stick out its tongue again, and that resets the trap.

KWONG: This is incredible. And you said this is happening at 15 times per second.

SOFIA: Yep.

KWONG: Dude.

SOFIA: I know. I know, dude. And the kicker is that this is pretty much happening passively. Like, the birds aren't working tiny tongue muscles to make this happen. They literally just have to stick their tongue out.

KWONG: Can you imagine being the first human to ever see this?

SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, Ale says, like, you know, whatever - it was pretty cool or whatever.

RICO-GUEVARA: It was completely wild. Like, I couldn't believe. Like, I thought something was off. So we repeated it a hundred times, and we finally convinced ourselves that, yeah, everybody was wrong and that this was much cooler and faster than anybody predicted.

SOFIA: I will tell you, Kwong, there is no sweeter moment in science to say, we couldn't believe it, we did it a hundred times, and, yeah, everybody else was wrong.

KWONG: Amazing, amazing. But Maddie, OK, how much does it eat? That is the whole point of this lawsuit that we are trying in our fake animal slander court. So...

SOFIA: OK. I mean...

KWONG: ...Is it slanderous to say you eat like a bird?

SOFIA: First of all, do not test the integrity of this court or suggest that it doesn't have any. Second of all, that's not the coolest part. But fine, yes, some hummingbirds can drink their entire body weight in sugar in one day.

KWONG: Whoa.

SOFIA: The key is to drink a little bit at a time but drink all day, every day.

RICO-GUEVARA: When you think about how much a hummingbird drinks and compare it to a human, for instance, it would be an insane amount of, you know, sugar water, like soda - like drinking two cans of soda per minute or so just to maintain yourself throughout the day.

KWONG: Yeah, no thank you. But - so the verdict on eat like a bird?

SOFIA: Yeah. So as an overall rule, it is slanderous to say birds don't eat a lot. Some birds can go a long time without eating - that's true. But there are a lot of birds that eat a ton, you know, especially the little guys. They can eat a lot in proportion to their little tiny weight.

KWONG: So like the hummingbird.

SOFIA: Yes, exactly.

KWONG: So the verdict?

SOFIA: Slander...

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SOFIA: ...Mostly, most of the time.

KWONG: Is that a tiny gavel?

SOFIA: I mean, don't worry about it. Make your way. Make your way.

KWONG: (Laughter) All right, SHORT WAVE listeners, that's it for the latest installment of Animal Slander.

SOFIA: If you have an idea for Animal Slander, you can email it to us at shortwave@npr.org.

KWONG: So far, we've done birds; we've done bats; we've done fish. You tell us what to cover next.

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SOFIA: This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Geoff Brumfiel and fact-checked by Emily Vaughn. I'm your host Maddie Sofia.

KWONG: And I'm your reporter Emily Kwong.

SOFIA: We'll see you next time on NPR SHORT WAVE.

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SOFIA: All right. I mean, honestly, the energy was...

KWONG: Lovely.

SOFIA: ...Great. And it was weirder than usual.

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