Avian Brains


The brain in birds is large, complex and unique in a number of ways, and it underlies the sophisticated cognitive, social and motor behaviours that typify birds.

Keywords: cerebrum; Wulst; DVR; basal ganglia; songbirds

Figure 1.

Side view of a pigeon brain showing the major brain subdivisions. The diencephalon lies between and is hidden by the cerebrum and the optic lobe.

Figure 2.

Frontal views through the cerebrum of a turtle (a) and a pigeon (b), with the major regions identified; areas that are homologous for reptiles and birds are shown by the same colours. Hy, hypothalamus; S, septum.

Figure 3.

Schematic diagrams of frontal views through the cerebrum, diencephalon and midbrain of the pigeon showing the cell groups that make up the major visual circuit (a) and the major auditory circuit (b) in birds. BG, basal ganglia; Ento, entopallium; EW, nucleus of Edinger–Westphal; Hp, hippocampus; M, mesopallium; Hy, hypothalamus; IC, inferior colliculus; N, nidopallium; Ov, nucleus ovoidalis; Rt, nucleus rotundus; SN, substantia nigra.

Figure 4.

Frontal view through the cerebrum of a pigeon, with the major regions identified and the slab‐like zones making up the Wulst (hyperpallium apicale, hyperpallium intercalatum and hyperpallium densocellulare) and dorsal ventricular ridge (mesopallium and the nidopallium) indicated by different colours.

Figure 5.

Side view of a songbird brain showing the song control cell groups of the forebrain and their interconnections. The green arrow indicates the serially connected structures forming the forebrain motor circuit for song control, while the red arrows show the connections of the forebrain song learning circuit. Aud CTX, auditory cortex (also known as field L); Cb, cerebellum; DLM, dorsolateral medial nucleus of the thalamus; HVC, higher vocal centre; LMAN, lateral magnocellular anterior nidopallium; nXII, hypoglossal nucleus; RA, robust nucleus of the arcopallium.



Bottjer SW (1997) Building a bird brain: sculpting neural circuits for a learned behavior. Bioessays 19: 1109–1116.

Chiappe LM (1995) The first 85 million years of avian evolution. Nature 378: 349–355.

Hodos W (1976) Vision and the visual system: a bird's eye view. Progress in Psychobiology and Physiological Psychology 6: 29–62.

Hunt SP and Brecha NC (1984) The avian optic tectum: a synthesis of morphology and biochemistry. In: Vanegas H (ed.) Comparative Neurobiology of the Tectum, pp. 619–648. NY: Plenum Press.

Jarvis ED, Scharff C, Grossman MR, Ramos JA and Nottebohm F (1998) For whom the bird sings: context‐dependent gene expression. Neuron 21: 775–788.

Jerison HJ (1985) Animal intelligence as encephalization. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 308: 21–35.

Karten HJ (1969) The organization of the avian telencephalon and some speculations on the phylogeny of the amniote telencephalon. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 167: 146–179.

Pepperberg IM (2002) The Alex Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pettigrew JD (1979) Binocular visual processing in the owl's telencephalon. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (Biology) 204: 435–454.

Reiner A (2000) A hypothesis as to the organization of cerebral cortex in the common reptile ancestor of modern reptiles and mammals. In: Bock GA and Cardew G (eds) Evolutionary Developmental Biology of the Cerebral Cortex, pp. 83–102, London: Novartis.

Reiner A, Karle EJ, Anderson KD and Medina L (1994) Catecholaminergic perikarya and fibers in the avian nervous system. In: Smeets WJAJ and Reiner A (eds) Phylogeny and Development of Catecholamine Systems in the CNS of Vertebrates, pp. 135–181. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reiner A, Medina L and Veenman CL (1998) Structural and functional evolution of the basal ganglia in vertebrates. Brain Research Reviews 28: 235–284.

Further Reading

Benowitz LI (1980) Functional organization of the avian telencephalon. In: Ebbesson SOE (ed.) Comparative Neurology of the Telencephalon, pp. 389–421. New York: Plenum Press.

Butler A and Hodos W (1996) Comparative Vertebrate Neuroanatomy – Evolution and Adaptation. New York: Wiley‐Liss.

Doupe AJ and Kuhl PK (1999) Birdsong and human speech: common themes and mechanisms. Annual Review of Neuroscience 22: 567–631.

Durand SE, Heaton JT, Amateau SK and Brauth SE (1997) Vocal control pathways through the anterior forebrain of a parrot (Melopsittacus undulatus). Journal of Comparative Neurology 377: 179–206.

Jarvis ED, Güntürkün O and Bruce L et al. (2005) Avian brains and a new understanding of vertebrate brain evolution. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6: 1–9.

Jarvis ED, Ribeiro S and da Silva ML et al. (2000) Behaviorally driven gene expression reveals song nuclei in hummingbird brain. Nature 406: 628–632.

Karten HJ (1979) Visual lemniscal pathways in birds. In: Granda AM and Maxwell JH (eds) Neural Mechanisms of Behavior in the Pigeon, pp. 409–430. New York: Plenum Press.

Medina L and Reiner A (2000) Do birds possess homologues of mammalian primary visual, somatosensory and motor cortices?. Trends in Neurosciences 23: 1–12.

Pepperberg IM, Willner MR and Gravitz LB (1997) Development of Piagetian object permanence in a grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). Journal of Comparative Psychology 111: 63–75.

Sherry DF, Vaccarino AL, Buckenham K and Herz RS (1989) The hippocampal complex of food‐storing birds. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 34: 308–317.

Strasser R, Bingman VP, Ioale P, Casini G and Bagnoli P (1998) The homing pigeon hippocampus and the development of landmark navigation. Developmental Psychobiology 33: 305–315.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Reiner, Anton(Sep 2005) Avian Brains. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1038/npg.els.0004083]