Professor Gisela Kaplan with a kookaburra.
Professor Gisela Kaplan with a kookaburra. Lesley Roger

Australian birds are amongst the world smartest

GISELA KAPLAN is on a mission to spread the word about our Australian birds and just how smart they really are, before many of them disappear for ever.

The Adjunct Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of New England, an international expert on bird brains, is so keen to spread the word she works exhausting 14-hour days researching birds, rescuing and rehabilitating birds; writing for magazines and newspapers, consulting on TV documentaries, taking part in radio shows, giving public lectures and talking to journalists around the world.

She has conducted ground-breaking research into vocal learning, communication and cognition in birds and other animals.

Much of her fieldwork is carried out on the Coffs Coast, where she has been a regular visitor for 30 years.

She now has a home in Coffs Harbour and a bush block of remnant sub-tropical rainforest near Glenreagh, which she describes as "my personal psychologist."

She says the area is extremely rich in birds and animals, both on land and at sea, because it is at the very tip of the subtropics.

Research into birds is forcing us to reassess everything we ever thought we knew about how brains produce intelligence and this has implications for animal welfare, habitat management and the protection of wildlife.

Professor Kaplan's work has shown that Australian birds are arguably among the smartest in the world, showing complex behaviours such as learning, tool use and problem solving , as well as complex emotions such as grieving, deception, bravery, happiness and love.

And who knew magpies were one of very few species worldwide able to play a meaningful game of hide and seek, or that the Teresian crow could learn how to eat cane toads without being poisoned?

Many Australian birds co-operate and defend each other, and exceptional ones go fishing by throwing breadcrumbs in the water, extract poisonous parts from prey; use tools to crack open eggshells and mussels and create music by drumming on hollow logs or rhythmically shaking vines.


Gisela Kaplan with a young tawny frogmouth she is rehabilitating.
Gisela Kaplan with a young tawny frogmouth she is rehabilitating.

Gisela Kaplan is trying to bridge the gap between the scientific research published only in specialist journals and the practical knowledge being acquired, but not publicised, by mostly volunteer wildlife carers.

"As academics we have to write and we get hit over the knuckles if we don't'," she said.

"But 90% of the public does not get to read it so it doesn't reach the audiences which can do something about Australian birds.

"There is a lot of knowledge in groups like WIRES - the most glorious work is being done by volunteers, but they are not writers, so it stays within the organisation."

But largely thanks to her work, she says some ideas are "trickling through."

Receiving the prestigious Whitley Award commendation for behavioural zoology from the Royal Zoological Society of NSW for her latest book Bird Minds in October was validation of her work.

Bird Minds shows just how intelligent and emotional Australian native birds can be.

"It means I'm through that corridor and I'm not dismissed as crazy,"' she said.

"My strength, for which I have never been particularly liked, is debunking myth

This month writer Tim Winton nominated Bird Minds as his favourite reading experience for 2016, describing it as "a revelation."

Gisela Kaplan suggests that the fickleness of Australia's harsh climate may have forced birds to develop skill in insight, problem solving and memory in order to survive,

To date Professor Kaplan has written 21 books, including the best seller The Australian Magpie.

While community attitudes have changed since 19th century mayors marched out into the bush with bands playing to release carp and rabbits with the aim of 'improving' our Australian wildlife ("If it wasn't so sad it would be terribly funny") they may not yet have changed enough to ensure the survival of many of our remaining birds and animals.

"Most people live in cities and can identify only the magpie and the kookaburra," Prof Kaplan said.

She hopes her work will lead to better outcomes.

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