The notion that birds are stupid because they have small brains is an outdated idea. Ornithologists, psychologists, neurologists, and those who study cognition have discovered that birds are more intelligent than anyone previously thought.
What is Intelligence?
For centuries, philosophers and scientists have debated this question, so if you’re looking for an easy answer, you won’t find it. Regardless, the scientific community tends to think about intelligence in terms of skills and knowledge like problem solving, abstract thinking, use of tools and symbols, memory, and self-awareness. And birds, some more than others, demonstrate they have at least some of these.
When you ask, “What is intelligence,” consider the sample of smart birds below. Is a hummingbird that migrates thousands of miles, but returns each year to the same garden, acting on pure instinct? Or does it possess a remarkable intelligence? You decide.
See also: How Do Birds Survive Winter?
New Caledonian crows not only use tools with ease, but also make them. With the exceptions of humans and apes, these crows are the only animal that can take two…sometimes three and four… non-functional items and combine them to make a useful tool.
Humans don’t do this until they’re five years old!
American crows have impressive memories. Scientists have experienced crows scolding people who are perceived as a threat years after the crows first encountered them. Anecdotal evidence suggests crows will also bringing “gifts” to those who treat them well.
Much like we plan for retirement or what we’re going to have for breakfast tomorrow, ravens can plan for unseen events. In other words, they think ahead. They plan for the future. Previously, scientists thought only humans and apes could think in this way.
Ravens can also barter—exchanging one item for a more desirable one. And experimenters suspect ravens can also engage in delayed gratification (unlike many humans).
Eurasian (Common) Magpie
Taylor, my beloved dog, is conscious of being hungry or tired or cold, and she’s trained me well to recognize the signs. But that doesn’t mean she’s self-aware, as demonstrated by her barking at herself in the mirror… repeatedly.
To determine whether an animal is self-aware we aptly use the animal mirror-test, and although its validity was recently called into question when a fish seemed to recognize itself. Maybe it’s more prejudice against small brains that is causing the concern, but it’s the best test we have. Only a handful of animals—all mammals—have passed. The only exception is the European or common magpie.
The Eurasian magpie, also a corvid, is one of the most intelligent animals on Earth. While the magpie’s ratio equals that of aquatic mammals and great apes, only humans have a larger brain-to-body-mass ratio. Magpies have shown the ability to:
- make and use tools
- imitate human speech
- play games
- work in teams
African Grey Parrot
Like corvids, parrots are smart birds. The African grey parrot can talk like a human but so can other parrots. The difference? African greys seem to know what they’re talking about.
The most famous African grey to use words in context was Alex. Dr. Irene Pepperberg worked with Alex for several decades and before he died unexpectedly, Alex had learned to use words, colors, and numbers in ways that went far beyond mimicry. You can listen to an interview with Dr. Pepperberg talking about Alex here.
In 2012, researchers at the University of Vienna released the results of their experiments with African greys. They proved the birds had some understanding of cause and effect and were capable of abstract, inferential reasoning—a skill humans typically don’t have until age three.
See also: Talons VS Claws: What’s the Difference?
Discover More About Intelligent Birds
These birds and their behaviors may be some of the most pronounced signs of avian intelligence, but they’re not the only ones. If you’d like to discover more about the intelligent birds, check out The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman and Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence by Nathan Emery.