MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS

I have a notoriously bad memory. Directions are especially difficult for me. I’ve travelled to many of Yorkshire’s nature reserves since I worra lad yet I still find myself unsure as to how to get to most of them. I rely on my SatNav for even the simplest journeys. Or I rely on my wife. She can find her way to places on other continents that she’s only ever glimpsed briefly on a hand-sketched map like in an Indiana Jones film. With her eyes closed.

She’d be great to have as your wing-woman on a migration. I’d be rubbish. I’d guess left at the first mountain range I encountered whereas she’d turn right with absolute certainty. But is that memory? That might be fine for a bird’s second or third year of long-distance flight or where its first migration was taken in the literal slipstream of its parents but what about those birds that take their first migratory journey on their own, with no other birds to follow? Ospreys, for example, might be hatched in Scotland but they will fly the entire distance to Africa for the wintertime alone, acting upon some internal guidance system to get them to where the season’s hunting will be the best.

Some migrants rely on breeding such as that Osprey, others on memory. Nature vs nurture. In the latter category are those who actually remember the rivers, hills and motorways that form the waymarkers along their annual migration journey. I’ve written about migration several times before in this series and it requires the use of many of the bird’s senses including some that we can only guess at, but memory is certainly a large factor. Many kinds of birds have to be taught the travel route by their parents so that they can replicate it in later life. And like so many life-lessons, if they fail to learn well, they don’t make the journey. Life in the wild is still a game of Survival of the Fittest.

It’s not just in their directional guidance that birds exhibit great feats of memory though. Some species are known for their ability to remember the precise locations of their food caches. The Jay, for example, can remember hundreds of places where it has hidden seeds. An American bird named the Clark’s Nutcracker can recall thousands.

And when you hear a Song Thrush tirelessly repeating the individual sequences of his song, you can be sure that many of these couplets are copied from other species, perhaps even from humans and their mechanical noises. That’s a combination of learning abilities and memory, and it sounds absolutely heavenly.

Overall, while memory abilities may differ among types of bird, many exhibit impressive skills essential for survival in their social interactions. Most birds will remember that they can get help from their family members but many will be able to recognise other individuals within their flock - and some can take this expertise across species. A Crow, for example, can remember a specific human face and even their interactions between them. So if, for example, you’ve acted badly towards the bird years ago it might remember you and actively avoid you. I know that I would.

If you feed the birds in your garden (and they’ll thank you for it) then it’s a good idea to only leave enough food out for them to eat on that single day. This will deter rodents from coming for the excess and also encourage the birds to keep finding wild food for themselves and not become reliant on your generosity. If you restock the feeder at the same time every day then don’t be surprised if you see them congregating in your garden a short time before the allotted hour. They will wait for you every day at the same time. This is obviously learned behaviour but part of that learning involves remembering the lesson. If I can remember where the best restaurants in my neighbourhood are and what time they open, is it such a stretch to believe that the birds can do the same? And, unlike me when I forget to stock up on supplies, they can’t rely on Just Eat or Deliveroo to bring their food. For these birds, a good memory means the difference between a good meal and potential starvation.

Like every other facet of its evolution, the memory of each species of bird is exactly as good or bad as it needs to be. No more, no less. No mental energy is wasted. Unlike me. I have so many unnecessary useless memories stored away (do I really need to be able to recite entire chunks of ‘Star Wars’ scripts by heart?), yet I can't remember why I just walked into the kitchen. Does anyone fancy a cup of tea while I’m here?