March 20th, 2009
11:47 PM ET

This one's for the bird brains

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/TECH/science/03/19/endangered.birds.report/art.birds.gov.jpg caption="The Western meadowlark is an endangered bird species, according to a new report."]

Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

As soon as I read today’s environmental headline, that nearly a third of America’s 800 bird species are in danger, I thought of the great sparrow massacre in China.

On May 18, 1958, the Chinese dictator, Mao, erroneously convinced that sparrows were eating large portions of China’s grain crop, ordered: “The whole people, including 5 year old children, be mobilized” to eliminate the sparrows. A former Chinese elementary school student, quoted in Judith Shapiro’s memorable book “Mao’s War Against Nature,” describes the slaughter. “The whole school went to kill sparrows. We climbed ladders to knock down their nests, and beat gongs in the evenings when they were coming home to roost.”

This coordinated effort, by millions of Chinese children and adults, killing sparrows, beating gongs at a specific designated hour all over the countryside, day after day, to exhaust the birds, basically wiped out the sparrow population. The next year locusts and other pests that were the primary food sources for sparrows, devoured the grain crop. The sparrows had been their predators. Without the sparrows, the pests took over. A famine ensued. Millions of Chinese died. The next year Mao was informed that the campaign against the sparrows backfired. He issued a new order: “Forget it.”

That’s what can happen when an ecosystem gets out of whack - when a single keystone species is lost. That’s why the first U.S. government report out this week on “The State of the Birds” is essential. Hundreds of bird species across America are in danger. Habitat loss is a major reason. With enough money and enough planning, various measures outlined in the report could save those species.


It’s not only the health of our environment at stake. Every bird, every species, for that matter, may contain mysteries that could lead to a better understanding of ourselves. Harvard Physician Aaron Bernstein, co-author with Dr. Eric Chivian of the award winning new book “Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity,”  relays what just one bird species helped teach us about the human brain.

“It was believed up until very recently that humans were born with all the brain cells they would ever have. “This,” explains Dr. Bernstein, “was the dogma taught in medical education for decades and was one explanation for why humans don't recover from injury to the central nervous system.” Then, we got some surprising news from a canary which killed the dogma.

In the late 1970s, Dr.Bernstein points out, a research group at Rockefeller University “noticed that the regions of the brain that made up the song system of canaries were larger in males than in females” and that those regions of the brain grew larger at the start of each breeding season. Not only that. According to Laura Erickson, of the Cornell Ornithology Lab,  every breeding season male canaries make up new songs. Female canaries like that. But how do those little canary brains make room for all that new music. It took years to find out. It turns out, says Erickson, that they “erase the files containing their old memories, their useless old songs, from their hard drive.” In other words, old neurons containing old memories die, and are replaced by new neurons that can remember new songs.

Could it be, wondered leading scientists, that if birds can grow new brain cells, so can humans? Brain researchers got further motivation from the black-capped chickadee.

Laura Erickson remembers when the temperature in northern Minnesota once dropped to a record low of 60 below 0. Despite the cold, when the morning arrived, the calls of the naked chickadees could be heard.  In order to survive under such harsh conditions, the chickadee’s tiny brains must enable them to find food first thing on those cold mornings, food they’ve hidden in thousands of tree crevices. When the food runs out in those hiding places, the chickadees, like the canaries, must erase those old neurons which contain memories of useless empty food cupboards, and create new neurons to store memories of new food hiding places.

And so, now, after years of taking their cue from these two birds, the medical establishment has discovered that human beings do grow new brain cells well into adulthood. And researchers continue to study birds for further insights into the mechanisms of the human brain. “The implications of this work for human medicine,” says Dr. Bernstein of Harvard, “cannot be overstated. It has changed the way we think about learning and memory and raised the possibility of halting or even reversing some of the devastating effects of some degenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s.” It has also, adds Dr. Bernstein, in Sustaining Life, given us new leads on how to repair damage from strokes and head injuries.

And it all started with a bird that sings.

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. KIm

    "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got til it's gone...paid paradise put up a parking lot "but we gotta save the birds.

    March 22, 2009 at 4:18 am |
  2. Anita Roll

    How can everyone help with this problem. Do we need to set up habitats for the suffering species. I know with all the building going on many trees are brought down. I worked in Florida on a new subdivision and several species of large cranes kept wandering through the houses and making a lot of noise. They were not happy at all that their nesting grounds were gone.

    March 22, 2009 at 1:05 am |
  3. ezlnwv

    I'm afraid that the Bush years will have an irreversible effect on our environment.

    Finally there is compassion in the White House.

    March 21, 2009 at 11:01 pm |
  4. KatchProFILMS

    Native Americans consider birds our true brothers (to man) because they, "... share our religion".

    March 21, 2009 at 3:52 pm |
  5. marcello

    Very interesting article, like many others you write
    Thank you.

    March 21, 2009 at 12:59 pm |
  6. Edward

    Until humanity realizes that we are but ONE species on this planet and the vital importance of ALL life, we will continue to get ourselves, and the world into trouble. It is a pity that humans have developed the sheer arrogance to think we are the best and brightest. We're hardly that. We must respect all life on this world and come to live in peace and harmony.

    March 21, 2009 at 12:21 pm |
  7. John-Paul

    Why must our reason to respect bird life depend on what birds can do for us? Why must information about birds' brains be valued primarily because it teaches us about our own brains? It seems people need some self-centered justification, such as human brain research, not to rip out the finest pages in the book of nature and erase them for all future generations of creatures, to borrow a phrase from Thoreau.

    March 21, 2009 at 11:51 am |
  8. Randy

    We need to increase our emphasize of science education of as many people as possible, throughout the world and certainly in the U.S.
    It is common for a large percentage of Americans, especially those with a "Right-Wing" mentality to be clueless about concepts such as the ones which Anderson Cooper writes about in this article.
    How many times have we heard the uneducated say something like, "it is a waste of our money to be spending" [X dollars] "to study" [fill in the blank, some science concept]?
    Scientists are great and our country and our world would be much better off if instead of spending as much as the rest of the world COMBINED on military and being the world's bully, we took perhaps half of that and diverted it to science and infrastructure, low-cost housing, etc.

    March 21, 2009 at 10:50 am |
  9. Maia

    The root of most of our most serious problems is something that people don't talk about much, and when they do it's usually an attempt to rationalize rather than seriously explore solutions. The root cause is overpopulation and the philosophy of endless growth. Human overpopulation causes habitat loss; pollution; excessive energy use & concomittant release of greenhouse gases; economic strains and imbalances; and political & military conflict as populations vie for living space and resources.

    The bottom line is that the philosophy of endless growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell, and the virus. It is irrational. We must, through education and worldwide birth control programs, reduce the human population to a level that is sustainable and in balance with what the natural world can provide. If we do not do this deliberately and intelligently, nature will reduce our population for us, through population crashes due to disease, starvation, environmental degradation and war.

    Are we, indeed, the most intelligent species? We're clever tool users, but not all that bright in the greater scheme, perhaps.

    March 21, 2009 at 10:49 am |
  10. Mary

    Thank you for bringing awareness to the issue of species extinction due to habitat loss, and its potential devastating effects for humans. Unfortunately, I don't believe that humans are smart enough to appreciate this and will eventually destroy themselves as a species by destroying the world around them.

    March 21, 2009 at 10:45 am |
  11. Marty Auer

    Anderson: thanks for your 'bird blog'. I mourn civilization's headlong rush to grow in ways that push all other life off of the planet. While, at the same time reveling in automobile ads that tout the glories of nature and the benefits of wide open spaces. My wife and I are faculty at Michigan Tech University, seeking to instill the ethic so nicely stated in your blog in the souls of the next generation. Our son is a soon-to-be M.S. graduate of Penn State, who is 'on the ground' in the bird and habitat loss battle. We all appreciate your well presented perspective on this issue. I'll be getting AC360's contribution into the classroom at the first opportunity.

    March 21, 2009 at 10:43 am |
  12. Henry Miller, Cary, NC

    "The great sparrow massacre" is a fabulous example of the way governments work in general–ignorant people doing stupid things and creating catastrophes, usually followed by wild over-compensation by equally ignorant people doing even dumber things creating even greater catastrophes.

    The size of the catastrophes is directly proportional to the size of government. If Mao had been mayor of small town, only that town would have had an ecological meltdown.

    The current financial crisis was caused by government, in the 90s, decreeing that there would be, by law, no such thing as as a mortgage loan to risky to be made. Economic idiocy on a par with Mao's ecological idiocy but with a far greater ensuing catastrophe. Just keep that in mind when you consider giving any government more power–the power to govern is the power to destroy.

    March 21, 2009 at 9:56 am |
  13. profart

    Around here, people think nothing of cutting down trees, en masse. They buy wooded lots, then promptly clear them. They buy homes and store with centuries-old oak trees, and hack them down. Nothing wrong with the trees- just in their way, or they fear a dropped branch or a windstorm (they get cheaper insurance rates if the tree is gone).

    Then people wonder where the birds have gone. Why the summers seem drier and we have more local drought (fewer trees means less water locked into the local ecosystem). Why the air is poor quality (did you know trees generate oxygen???)

    Ah, progress. I'm not against progress. I just think the way people think about and design stores, homes, and property these days is all for the quick buck, instead of long-term profit and quality of life.

    March 21, 2009 at 9:49 am |
  14. Sue

    I wonder if your bird experts that gave you the info on this article can tell us what we can do to help birds prosper. I have a bird feeder that I keep full all year long. I live in Massachusetts so I make sure to keep it full in winter since so many birds stick around. Am I doing the right thing or does that keep them around to die of exposure in the snow and cold. I feel since they are around I have to feed them to help them but I have often wondered if that if I didn't they would go south with the other birds, and I wonder where do they go to keep warm in the cold New England storms??? A story on one of your shows on birds and how to help them prosper what we can do in our neighborhoods would be great for I love the sound of birds chirping waking me up in the morning and I have noticed the variety of species of brids coming around gets less and less every year despite my having plants and berries they like and sunflower seeds and other bird food in feeders and those bird food bells. I even put those man made nests high in trees to help them out... what else can we do to help birds prosper?

    March 21, 2009 at 1:34 am |
  15. Levenah

    It is absolutely crucial that we protect these endangered birds.
    It's amazing that even the smallest creatures could hold the answers to some of the most serious medical questions out there. We also don't know what the long term effect of loosing all these animals could be on the eco-system once they are gone. If we loose many, we could see serious changes in the climate system!

    March 21, 2009 at 12:00 am |
  16. Melanie

    One more reason we are well rid of the anti-conservation Bush. One more reason to be glad Obama is there as his GREEN attitudes may be able to save many species from extinction.

    March 20, 2009 at 11:19 pm |
  17. Lawrence

    My friend Chicken Little came by the house today. Guess what he said? "The sky is falling!!!!" Then we both forgot what we were talking about and went bowling with some Special Olympics kids. They kicked our bird butts!

    March 20, 2009 at 11:16 pm |
  18. Karen

    I feel like my neural cells are malfunctioning! Say what???

    March 20, 2009 at 9:56 pm |
  19. Maria

    Happy evening Anderson,

    Can birds old memories deleted without local surgery, for example remote sensing?
    This help to define the exact malfunctioning neural cells.

    March 20, 2009 at 9:08 pm |
  20. Annie Kate

    Its astounding to think that study a small bird like the sparrow or chickadee could lead to advances in Alzheimer's and new leads on repairing damage from strokes and head injuries. It makes you wonder how much else is out there in endangered status that could potentially hold the key to a cure for other human maladies. Just goes to show that we and the rest of nature are highly inter-related; what effects the other species can have a direct or indirect impact on us – hope that in knowing this we will work harder to save our endangered species.

    March 20, 2009 at 8:55 pm |
  21. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    Every plant and creature on the earth has some purpose to help our world thrive. Ironic isn't it that the supposedly "superior" creature, humankind, oftentimes doesn't seem to have a functioning brain cell when it comes to the conservation of nature? I often wonder how many cures and possibilities to better our lives are lost when a species dies out and how much we've already lost to our own ignorance and apathy. I wonder, too, when we will wake up before that same ignorance and apathy completely destroys us.

    March 20, 2009 at 8:32 pm |
  22. Larry Pinell

    Mao did the same to tigers in China. He decided they were "pests" and put a bounty on them. The South China Tiger was once a distinct species of tiger and there are only some in zoos today. Of coarse, the last four distinct species are currently on the edge of extinction. And our species goes marching on, increasing our numbers without thought, eating away every last bit of habitat amidst the largest holocaust of wildlife since the great Ice Ages...and this in less than 50 years...

    March 20, 2009 at 7:57 pm |
  23. Guy Pennsylvania

    People Senator Frank said on TV that AIG employees threaten to quit thats extortion. However, he doesn't know the names of the employees nor can he tell us who threaten to quit. There is no evidence that all 400 employee or 73 employees that got millions threaten to quit. Now, there is evidence that Congress threaten those employees on TV, threaten to publish their names, threaten their property where a contract was given to them. Who signed the agreement in 2008, because that who needs to testify not Liddy.

    March 20, 2009 at 7:55 pm |