The three-way association among food-storing behavior, spatial memory, and hippocampal enlargement in some species of birds is widely cited as an example of a new ‘cognitive ecology’ or ‘neuroecology.’ Whether this relationship is as strong as it first appears and whether it might be evidence for an adaptive specialization of memory and hippocampus in food-storers have recently been the subject of some controversy [Bolhuis and Macphail, 2001; Macphail and Bolhuis, 2001]. These critiques are based on misconceptions about the nature of adaptive specializations in cognition, misconceptions about the uniformity of results to be expected from applying the comparative method to data from a wide range of species, and a narrow view of what kinds of cognitive adaptations are theoretically interesting. New analyses of why food-storers (black-capped chickadees, Poecile atricapilla) respond preferentially to spatial over color cues when both are relevant in a memory task show that this reflects a relative superiority of spatial memory as compared to memory for color rather than exceptional spatial attention or spatial discrimination ability. New studies of chickadees from more or less harsh winter climates also support the adaptive specialization hypothesis and suggest that within-species comparisons may be especially valuable for unraveling details of the relationships among ecology, memory, and brain in food-storing species.

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