Sunday, 2 December 2007

Bird brains

Okay, I realize I never posted why I chose the online identity "birdbrainscan" for myself. I often find myself curious about other people's choices of nicknames, so for people like me who think of things like that, here's where mine comes from.

It's obviously a "before-and-after" combination of "birdbrain" plus "brain scan". My wife is a keen fan of Wheel of Fortune, and I watch along. My favorite puzzle format of theirs is before-and-after, in which two common phrases, titles, etc. are joined with some amount of overlap, such as "Bleak House at Pooh Corner." There is a whole genre of puzzle where you have to link two words or phrases by creating a chain of before-and-afters. The TV game show Chain Reaction uses this game.

I don't have any personal links to brain imaging, other than finding it really kewl, and it starts with "brain" so it completes the puzzle. But as a keen birder I proudly accept the label of birdbrain for myself.

I am particularly smitten with the inspiring book Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays by Candace Savage, which recounts the remarkable intelligence of corvids, fitting into a broader literature on animal intelligence that I've enjoyed. I checked this book out of the library several years ago and I still recall vivid details of several stories. Ask me about the crow and the crosswalk (technically a zebra crossing, as this was in the U.K. but I like the alliteration.) Another very clever bird was the late, lamented Alex the African Grey parrot, trained by Irene Pepperberg to answer subtle questions about fridge magnets. News of Alex's passing this fall was met with an outpouring of public grief. Alex was truly amazing and Dr. Pepperberg has contributed greatly to our appreciation of the power of tiny but well-used brains.

I couldn't just use birdbrain as a nick since it is far too popular. So a before-and-after combo seemed just the ticket to make a term that had never shown up on the web previously. A google search now finds all sorts of message boards where I've used this nick dating back to 2003 at least.

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