The Five-Ounce Bird That Stores 10,000 Maps In Its Head

I just finished reading one of Dan Pink’s earlier books, “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future“, and I absolutely loved it. Here is a blurb about the book:

The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic “right-brain” thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t. Drawing on research from around the world, Pink outlines the six fundamentally human abilities that are absolute essentials for professional success and personal fulfillment–and reveals how to master them. A Whole New Mind takes readers to a daring new place, and a provocative and necessary new way of thinking about a future that’s already here.

I plan to write several blogs based on the content of the book, particularly based on the exercises that are at the end of each of the chapters that describe the six senses Pink argues will be critical for success and fulfillment.

For today’s post I thought I would focus on symphony. Here is a short description of this sense from the book:

Much of the Industrial and Information Ages required focus and specialization. But as white-collar work gets routed to Asia and reduced to software, there’s a new premium on the opposite aptitude: putting the pieces together, or what Pink calls SYMPHONY. What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis – seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an interesting new whole.

One of the exercises at the end of the chapter was titled, “Follow the Links”, and suggested that the reader use a site like http://www.uroulette.com or http://www.randomwebsearch.com to explore web sites you would normally not visit and then see what you learn.

As part of  completing the exercise, I discovered that those two web sites no longer seemed to exist in the form that must have been around 12 years ago. However, the searches did lead me to stumbleupon.com, which then led me to mix.com. Once there, I signed up to receive articles on a variety of subjects, many ones I normally would not have selected (again based on a suggestion in another part of Pink’s book).

And finally, it led me to a fascinating story, “How a 5-Ounce Bird Stores 10,000 Maps in Its Head“.

It starts in high summer, when whitebark pine trees produce seeds in their cones—ripe for plucking. Nutcrackers dash from tree to tree, inspect, and, with their sharp beaks, tear into the cones, pulling seeds out one by one. They work fast. One study clocked a nutcracker harvesting “32 seeds per minute.”

These seeds are not for eating. They’re for hiding. Like a squirrel or chipmunk, the nutcracker clumps them into pouches located, in the bird’s case, under the tongue.

Next, they land. Sometimes they peck little holes in the topsoil or under the leaf litter. Sometimes they leave seeds in nooks high up on trees. Most deposits have two or three seeds, so that by the time November comes around, a single bird has created 5,000 to 20,000 hiding places. They don’t stop until it gets too cold. When December comes—like right around now—the trees go bare and it’s time to switch from hide to seek mode. Nobody knows exactly how the birds manage this, but the best guess is that when a nutcracker digs its hole, it will notice two or three permanent objects at the site: an irregular rock, a bush, a tree stump. The objects, or markers, will be at different angles from the hiding place.

Next, they measure. This seed cache, they note, “is a certain distance from object one, a certain distance from object two, a certain distance from object three,” says biologist Diana Tomback. “What they’re doing is triangulating. They’re kind of taking a photograph with their minds to find these objects” using reference points.

When the snow falls and it’s time to eat, they’ll land at a site. “They will perch on a tree,” says Tomback, “on a low branch, [then light onto the ground, where] they pause, look around a bit, and they start digging, and in a few cases I’ll see them move slightly to the right or to the left and then come up again.”

She’s convinced that they’re remembering markers from summer or fall and using them to point to the X spot—and, “Lo and behold, these birds come up with their cracked seeds,” she says. “And it’s really pretty astounding.”

That’s a clue that each of these birds has thousands of marker-specific snapshots in their heads that they use for months and months. When the spring comes and the birds have their babies, they continue to visit old sites to gather seeds until their chicks fledge.

No one knows quite how these birds can accomplish such an impressive feat – knowing the hidden location of so many seeds, several months later.

I used to pride myself on my ability to know a few different ways to get to the same destination; I am assuming such an ability required storing a few maps in my brain.

However, over the past few years I have become quite addicted and too reliant on Google Maps to get me around town. I am sure using it so much has lessened my ability to get around town in multiple ways.

So I think the exercise served its purpose; it showed me how going off the beaten path can lead me to unexpected places, and once there, it is possible to learn a new thing or two.

Not only did I learn about these amazing birds, but I realized that I should probably rely a bit less on Google Maps to get me around, and instead start building a variety of mental maps of the places I go frequently.

On the other hand, it seems like there is no need for the nutcracker to learn about Google Maps, it seems like its built-in GPS is good enough.

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