the impressive memory of black-capped chickadees for hiding… and above all finding food

These birds are capable of hiding up to 500,000 items of food per year in hiding places spread over several hectares.


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The black-capped chickadee is able to remember all the hiding places where it has hidden food, even several months later.  March 20, 2015. (SYLVESTRE / MAXPPP)

If on this Easter Monday you no longer know where you have hidden the children’s chocolate eggs, take an example from the black-capped titmouse. Work by American researchers confirms that this bird has a very organized memory. The black-capped chickadee has fascinated researchers for decades because it can hide up to 500,000 items of food per year in hiding places spread over several hectares. So it’s much more complex than hunting for eggs in the garden. She is able to remember all these hiding places, even several months later.

To unravel this mystery, neuroscience researchers from Columbia University in the United States, using brain implants, studied for the first time the neuronal activity of the hippocampus of chickadees when they hide food. Their work was published Friday March 29. The hippocampus is an area of ​​the brain, a cerebral structure that plays an important role in memory and spatial orientation.

In the laboratory, these researchers encouraged chickadees to hide sunflower seeds in a perforated panel with 120 hiding places. They realized that each time the bird makes a reservation somewhere, it creates a memory. Each hiding place corresponds to a completely different pattern of brain activation from the previous one, even if the two hiding places are side by side. Another lesson: to create each of these souvenir labels, the titmouse only uses 7% of the cells in its hippocampus. They are different cells each time. This mechanism would allow the rapid storage of numerous memories, without confusion, and in a way that is economical for the brain.

The need to have a good memory

These tits do not migrate and must survive the winter without insects or seeds on the plants. They generally accumulate reserves in late summer and fall, then return to collect them a few months later. Further studies will be necessary to understand how the titmouse then reactivates its memories. We still have a lot to learn about bird brains, which work differently than ours. It is extremely effective by consuming much less glucose than that of mammals, due to a different arrangement of neurons. We could take some seeds from it, to develop our knowledge.

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