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Parrots, songbirds pack more neurons into their forebrains than most mammals

Calling someone a “bird brain” might not be the zinger of an insult you thought it was: A new study shows that—by the total number of forebrain neurons—some birds are much brainier than we thought. The study, published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that 28 bird species have more neurons in their pallial telencephalons, the brain region responsible for higher level learning, than mammals with similar-sized brains. Parrots and songbirds in particular packed in the neurons, with parrots (like the gray parrot, above) ranging from 227 million to 3.14 billion, and songbirds—including the notoriously intelligent crow—from 136 million to 2.17 billion. That’s about twice as many neurons as primates with brains of the same mass and four times as many as rodent brains of the same mass. To come up with their count, the researchers dissected the bird brains and then dissolved them in a detergent solution, ensuring that the cells were suspended in what neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel of Vanderbilt University in Nashville calls “brain soup.” This allowed them to label, count, and estimate how many neurons were in a particular brain region. The region that they focused on allows some birds to hone skills like tool use, planning for the future, learning birdsong, and mimicking human speech. One surprising finding was that the neurons were much smaller than expected, with shorter and more compact connections between cells. The team’s next step is to examine whether these neurons started out small or instead shrank in order to keep the birds light enough for flights. One thing, at least, is clear: It’s time to find a new insult for your less brainy friends.