Lost your way? Just follow that bird

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A famous New Yorker cartoon shows a policeman explaining to a tourist how to find some famous location. The policeman's speech is shown as a bubble containing a precise map of left and right turns, landmarks and destination.

The listening tourist has a thought bubble which also contains a map - but it is a terrible, confused thing where the policeman's solid directions have become a wandering squiggle.

That's the trouble with trying to tell people how to find things: they have to have the same map in their head that we do, or else you're wasting your breath. And describing a picture in your head is one of life's hardest tasks: "It's past the blue pub - well, it looks blue when the yellow streetlight's on, though really it's sort of green ..."

When a place or system (such as a computer) is familiar to you, scientists say you have a "cognitive map" of it: you know how to get from A to B. (Of course, when a computer is new to you, you do not have a cognitive map for how it works - hence helplines.)

We feel confident that we can hold cognitive maps in our head because we're conscious, sentient beings. But how do other animals which find things do it? How do squirrels find nuts they've buried for their essential winter stores, and how do birds that bury seeds (as some do) locate them when they fly back into the area?

It turns out that these lower animals also use cognitive maps - a fact established by a pair of scientists at the University of Nebraska who experimented with birds called the corvid Clark's nutcracker. Their work is published today in the science journal Nature.

In the ungenerous way that scientists have, Alan Kamil and Juli Jones kept the birds hungry and then put them into an observation room with posters on the walls, and a door, porthole and smoked-glass window on the east wall. There were also north and south landmarks, with a seed buried halfway between them; the birds entered the room each time via the eastern porthole. The birds got used to finding the seed, even when it was well buried.

Then the scientists started moving the landmarks around. Which did not trouble the birds: they simply looked for the landmarks, found the halfway point, and dug for the seed there.

So the experimenters started playing nasty tricks on these tourist-like birds, and began shifting the north-south landmarks away from their north- south orientation relative to the porthole. The birds still headed for the halfway mark. The height of the landmarks was changed. No problem for the birds. The seeds were removed altogether (in case the birds were cheating by smelling them). Still, the birds hit the mark.

Eventually, the duo had to admit that the birds could do it: they could build a cognitive map. Or, as the paper puts it, "nutcrackers can learn to find a spatial position defined by an abstract geometric relationship".

Quite where this leaves the human race is an entirely separate matter. If birds can fly halfway around the world and then return to the same spot by holding a map inside their (comparatively) rudimentary brains, what does that say about us, struggling to follow the directions of New York policemen and the entreaties of computer helpline operators? Perhaps what we really need is not to be so clever, but a little more bird-brained in our approach to the world. It's a solution that could work wonders - as long as nobody moves the goalposts while we're not looking.