Can our fine feathered friends subjectively evaluate different traits of feed, particularly corn? I asked myself that question more than a dozen years ago while serving as an advisor to the vocational ag program in Milford, NY. This ag program was physically centered in a barn populated by goats, sheep, layer hens, rabbits, pigs, dairy heifers, light horses – nothing requiring milking – and one cat. There were also some semi-domesticated white-tailed deer whose status was closely monitored by the state DEC that had their own annex in that structure. All the school’s animal residents were offered minerals, plus a general-purpose grist manufactured by a local feed mill, as well as plenty of purchased hay. No hay was made at the school’s farm.
There I conducted an experiment, testing the ability of poultry to intelligently select from different types of hybrid corn. I got two nearby farmers to donate whole ears of corn: one lot of hybrid corn was genetically modified to survive glyphosate herbicide applications, the other lot was certified organic. Before I describe how this experiment played out, let me do two things – first, provide a new definition to the term “bird brain,” and second, explain how a very special heirloom corn variety was rescued from extinction.
According to neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University, “For a long time having a ‘bird brain’ was considered to be a bad thing; now it turns out that it should be a compliment. The new study suggests an answer to a puzzle that comparative neuro-anatomists have been wrestling with for more than a decade: how can birds with their small brains perform complicated cognitive behaviors?”
She referred to studies “that directly compared the cognitive abilities of parrots and crows with those of primates. The studies found that the birds could manufacture and use tools, use insight to solve problems, make inferences about cause-effect relationships, recognize themselves in a mirror and plan for future needs, among other cognitive skills previously considered the exclusive domain of primates.”
More on the subject of corn – I encountered an online article titled “This corn was down to its last two cobs. Now it could help farmers grow food in the climate crisis.” This CNN story was written by Jimmy Harlan, published on Nov. 18. I’ll hit the article’s high spots. Harlan wrote that, with Hurricane Florence barreling down on Campbell Coxe’s South Carolina farm in 2018, this grain farmer had to decide which of his family’s crops was he going to save. “He chose the Jimmy Red corn, an heirloom crop that generations of moonshiners knew for its nutty sweet flavor and high oil content. But scientists also know it as one of a few plants that could help society grow food amid the climate crisis, as temperatures get hotter, fresh water becomes scarce and storms get stronger,” Harlan wrote. “In what would normally take a week to accomplish, Coxe frantically harvested … through daylight and darkness … his 50 acres of Jimmy Red just before the storm hit and destroyed the remaining crops.”
Jimmy Red had dodged becoming nothing more than a mere memory 10 years earlier. In September 2008, Ted Chewning, a farmer and heirloom seed collector, would show folks two ears of the blood-red corn. “I was fascinated by it,” said Chewning. “It was a beautiful corn on the cob.” Not only that, they were the last two ears of Jimmy Red. A local moonshiner, the last known grower of Jimmy Red corn, had just died; his family no longer wanted to grow corn for whiskey distilling. The moonshiner’s family gave the two ears to Chewning, believing he could use them for the best purpose possible.
“I held onto it through the winter, saved one ear, and planted the seeds from the second in the spring,” said Chewning. Years later, scientists realized Chewning likely saved Jimmy Red from extinction, and with it, a genetic code that may help commercial corn growers combat rapidly changing climate.
Brian Ward, Ph.D., research scientist at Clemson University, said, “The world is going to have to grow more food on half the land with half the resources. The genes in heirloom corn can help us do that.” He explained that Jimmy Red dwindled because it’s not the kind of corn that is edible straight off the cob. It must be dehydrated to extract its flavor and high oil content – ideal for making moonshine, but not valuable for large commercial farming. He stressed that its value is in its genetics.
Quoting Ward again: “Heirloom grains, vegetables and fruits have developed traits that make them less vulnerable to climate change, because they have been grown over hundreds of years in wildly different conditions. Those traits can be used to breed cultivars that will withstand harsher growing environments. An heirloom may have that gene that can produce well in extreme conditions.”
Let’s return to the Milford menagerie, and what turned out to be selectively finicky fowls. One evening, I introduced the 30 or so hens, all belonging to this diversely pigmented flock, to their new corn cuisine options: one pile of organic corn and one pile of non-organic corn. At that time there was 90% – 95% certainty that the non-organic corn was genetically modified to tolerate at least one herbicide, possibly carrying man-made genes to fight insects.
The following morning, all that remained of the organic corn was bare cobs. The non-organic corn was virtually intact. Some hens had begun eating non-organic kernels, but even more hens started to eat organic cobs.
The Vanderbilt professor credited birds with being able to “use insight to solve problems” and “make inferences about cause-effect relationships.” Were the hens rejecting the pesticide residue in the non-organic corn, or the modified genes themselves, or both? We don’t know. But we’re pretty certain that the BOCES birds knew nothing about the Vanderbilt research.