Bird-Brained Fact or Fiction: How Intelligent are Birds?

Bird intelligence - how clever are they?

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The term bird-brained is used to describe someone who isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. But as it turns out, that might not be an accurate insult. Birds may have small brains, but they’re far from stupid. All it takes is to observe birds in your garden, and you’ll notice how intelligent some of these animals can be.

Bird Brains Compared to Mammalian Brains

Birds brains compared to mammalian brains

It would be easy to assume that having a bigger brain means that an animal is smarter. But the size of the brain has very little, if anything, to do with intelligence. In fact, a creature’s level of intelligence corresponds more closely to their brain’s neuron density than it does its size.

Studies have been taking place to compare the bird brain with that of mammals, and the results have been very surprising. Compared with many primate species, birds have been shown to have many more neurons packed into their brains which allows them to complete several tasks with much greater ease.

These studies looked at birds of all sizes, therefore the brains were different sizes, and noted that most avian species were able to learn how to use tools, plan for their needs, recognize themselves in a mirror, and many other smart tricks. There have even been pigeons that have been able to determine which artist created a painting; some humans might even struggle with that!

In fact, these interesting studies have shown that not only are birds’ brains wired in very much the same way as mammals, but some species, such as certain types of parrots have similar neuron density to that of the great apes. There are even some birds who have twice the number of neurons compared with primates that have a similar brain mass.

While mammals have what is known as a neocortex, it was thought for some time that birds did not have this. However, while this outer layer of the brain does differ in shape, its structure and function are largely the same as in the mammalian brain. So yes, birds’ brains are much smaller, but they’re certainly no less intelligent.

Traits Found in Intelligent Birds

Traits found in intelligent birds

Birds are incredibly different to us in many ways. Not only in their appearance but their behaviors and lifestyle. But being different doesn’t mean being less intelligent, and it’s amazing to learn some of the characteristics of these smart little creatures.

Communication Skills

Animals, including birds, don’t always communicate in the same way as humans with highly developed language. But when you think about the other ways in which these animals communicate, it’s easy to see how they’re so smart.

I mean, we can’t ignore the fact that some bird species, like parrots and ravens are able to talk. No, they don’t use this as a natural method of communication but when they live with humans, they’ll begin mimicking our language and the sounds they hear.

Some birds, like budgerigars, have been noted to be able to mimic more than 2000 words, whereas others manage just a handful. Still, it’s a pretty impressive feat when you consider that some species may be able to actually understand what they’re saying. This is likely through association, for example, they know that if they ask for a snack, they’ll get food.

But even in the wild, various bird species are known for their mimicry. Take the African grey parrot, for example, which will mimic the calls of other birds in the vicinity. Species like the orange conure in South America have been observed mimicking the calls of specific individuals within the colony in order to communicate with them!

The lyrebird, known for its ability to mimic everything from a phone ringing to a car alarm, human speech, and much more actually uses this ability to deceive. It’s thought that males will make sounds to trick the females into mating; now that’s cunning!

But even where birds do not talk or mimic other sounds, they have a range of vocal songs that they use to communicate with other birds. This includes chirps, whistles, pops, and other sounds that are used to mark location, provide an alert, and for mating, among other things.

Tool Construction & Use

Among all birds that show intelligence, parrots and corvids have been shown to have the ability to craft and use tools both in the lab and in the wild.

Some studies have shown that crows are more adept at using a wire tool to reach a treat than an eight-year-old human child! But it’s the New Caledonian crow that retains the crown for being the best avian tool maker. They’ve long been observed crafting tools from twigs and during studies, their abilities have far outweighed that of primate species.

And these crows aren’t the only ones that can craft their own tools. The woodpecker finch also uses a DIY tool in order to help it obtain food. Using stick-like tools they are able to reach their snack but what’s amazing is that this behavior has been observed and mimicked by other species including the Española cactus finch. It just goes to show how truly intelligent birds really are.

Problem Solving Skills

There are a lot of bird species that will try out different methods of getting things done to make life easier, just like humans use problem-solving skills!

For example, the bald eagle figured out that carrying its prey through the air wasn’t the easiest thing, and these birds can be seen dragging their catch along the top of a body of water.

The raven is super smart in terms of finding its next meal and has even learned that the sound of gunfire means that hunters are nearby. Where there are hunters, there are likely to be dead animals, and ravens can scavenge for some tasty tidbits!

You might also consider various species of gulls and other seabirds that find mollusks and crustaceans for food but these can be tricky to open. So, the birds drop them from great heights onto hard surfaces like rocks and voila, they’ve got their next meal.

There are even reports of rooks that can successfully locate a treat under one of three cups, just like the magic cup and ball game humans have played for centuries!

Social Skills

Birds have long been known to learn to communicate with humans through mimicry and speech. Moreover, there’s evidence to suggest that birds have relationship intelligence with other species.

However, most bird owners have their birds learn to speak as something of a party trick, despite how cool it might be. But when you take things back to bird basics, you see that they’re incredibly intelligent when it comes to communication and socializing.

For example, some birds have banded together to hunt. The wild turkey will hunt in groups, stretching their wings to form a barrier which they’ve figured out gets them a far greater yield of bugs.

The crow is another example of a bird that works as a team. These birds live in large flocks that consist of several generations. They’ll work together to attack predators and protect the group. Similarly, ravens will form social groups that are made up from birds at all stages of life in the knowledge that predators will be less likely to attack. Moreover, they’re able to gather at food sites in order to have the best access to carcasses.

And these birds are so socially intelligent that they’re able to form ranks within their groups. Not that they always want to comply with these ranks, as ravens can be seen emitting dominance reversal calls and attempting, sometimes successfully, to alter the ranking of the group.

Within groups, certain individuals may form strong bonds. This is often seen in monogamous birds who will either remain with their partner or return to them after parting ways for the winter.

Good Memories

Where food is concerned, a lot of birds have excellent memories. For example, hummingbirds will recall the location of specific nectar-rich plants and will come back to them as far ahead as a year down the line!

Other birds, like the blue jay, will collect nuts and hoard them in several locations, which they’ll remember in the future. Unlike some other animals that store all of their finds in one place, the astonishing thing about these jays is that they’ll hide individual nuts in each location. Even humans might have a problem remembering all of that. This is a process known as food caching that is also noted in birds like the woodpecker.

Songbirds are pretty impressive when it comes to memory as well. Male canaries will learn songs at a young age, which they’ll later need to recall when looking for a mate. Some of these songs can be very complex and take a lot of learning.

But what’s really amazing is that it has been shown that some birds are even able to recognize human faces. This is quite common among urban birds, and one study on pigeons demonstrated their ability to not only recognize the faces of friendly humans but also their voices.

Most Intelligent Birds Species

There are some species of birds that are more intelligent than others. For example, corvids and parrots are known to be far smarter than something like an albatross. But in any case, our avian friends have a lot of impressive skills when it comes to cognition.

1. Crows

Crows are among some of the most intelligent birds and have a lot of smart skills. For example, crows have been regularly seen using tools to aid their hunting. The New Caledonian crow is a prime example of this. Despite being taken care of and fed by their parents for the first two years of life, they know how to get food when the time comes.

These birds will find fork-like twigs which they then use as a tool to catch bugs. What’s even more impressive is that these same birds have been observed using tools that they have previously made and saved for later. And let’s not forget about one New Caledonian crow that was even able to operate her very own vending machine, choosing the right sized tokens to get a snack!

There’s also a lot of evidence that shows crows are able to recognize human faces. This theory was tested by having a group of people wear one set of masks while trapping crows in a park environment, while another group, wearing different masks, just walked by. Afterward, the crows were shown to be more cautious and skittish around the group in the first masks.

They’re also very smart when it comes to learning about predators. In one study, crows were seen to spend time observing their dead in proximity to predators. They avoided going to a food source where there was a dead crow alongside a potential predator, demonstrating their ability to sense danger and make appropriate decisions to ensure their survival in line with this.

2. Ravens

Most people think about parrots when they imagine a talking bird, but ravens are excellent speakers and can be trained to mimic human words perfectly.

But it’s not just mimicry, these birds are very effective communicators. For example, they’ve been shown to use their beaks to point at things as well as teaming up to pick up or move an item with their bills! Not only that but they’re able to hoard food and plan for the future seemingly more effectively than apes.

Moreover, ravens have been hailed for their ability to solve puzzles, and various tests have been carried out to demonstrate this. For example, ravens were given a puzzle whereby they had to anchor a piece of string to access the food hanging from it. In many cases, the ravens were able to do this immediately, while others took no more than 30 seconds to figure out the puzzle!

It’s thought that ravens, along with other corvids, are able to learn skills from their parents who take care of them for such a long time, making them markedly more intelligent than other birds.

3. Jackdaws

Another corvid species is the jackdaw, and just like its cousins, this is a very intelligent bird. Not only this, but it seems that they’re capable of some sort of emotion since they form very strong bonds with their partners and will mate for life. Unlike other birds that may stray should breeding be unsuccessful, these pairs will push on through with nothing but devotion.

What’s more, jackdaws can learn tricks and be trained. There was once even said to be a group of Italian crooks who taught jackdaws to steal money for them!

Jackdaws are able to protect themselves from predators by learning facial features. Just like other corvids, they have been proven to recognize human faces and will even flee when confronted with faces that have previously threatened them. What’s even more interesting is that there is some suggestion that they’re able to sense whether a predator is moving toward them. Although this is to a lesser degree than facial recognition.

Scientists have also noticed that jackdaws can use eye contact with humans to determine the location of a food source. They also have something of an affinity with humans and will form close bonds with them, further proving their emotional intelligence.

4. Magpies

Magpies are yet another clever corvid species, and one of the most notable signs of their intelligence is their ability to pass the mirror test. This test is designed to assess the level of self-recognition in non-human species, and magpies seem to pass with flying colors.

When placed in front of a mirror with a colored sticker on their throats, the magpies would notice this and begin attempting to remove said sticker. This proves that they could recognize that the image before them was themselves.

Compared with other animals, magpies have a brain-to-body ratio that is only outmatched by humans and apes. They show great emotional intelligence, even grieving, and are able to form strong bonds. In fact, it’s been shown that when magpies live in larger groups, they become even more intelligent. 

One study attempted to track magpies using tracking devices. However, within just ten minutes of attaching the devices, the birds were helping each other to remove them!

Magpies may not be commonly recognized for their ability to speak but they can certainly learn and do a very good job of mimicking sounds and phrases. They’ll even form friendships with humans!

5. Jays

Jays are corvids but there’s something special about them compared to other birds within this family. Where magpies and ravens seem to learn from others in a group, non-social jays have been shown to be just as intelligent as those that live in flocks.

The Californian scrub jay, a solitary bird, was pitted against the social Mexican jay with the belief that it would not perform as well, intellectually speaking. But the outcome was rather different, with both birds showing equal levels of intelligence. The only real difference was how they learned to work the puzzle they were presented with; scrub jays took a more hands-on approach, interacting with the puzzle, whereas the Mexican jays spent more time observing.

Again, despite not being hailed for their ability of speech, more and more research is showing that jays and other corvids are incredibly talented mimics.

Scrub jays have also been shown to prepare for the future by storing food in just the right amounts, ready for their next meal. Some have even been seen to plan as far ahead as the following day. Eurasian jays will even move their food stash if they think that they’ve been seen and studies have shown that this is due to the bird’s ability to judge other animals’ intentions! 

6. Clark’s Nutcracker

Nucifraga Columbiana, or to call it by its common name, the Clark’s nutcracker is a bird with an exceptional memory. Just like many other birds, these nutcrackers will hide their food in various locations, known as food caching. But if they sense that they’re being watched, the birds will only store food in difficult to see places that only they can remember.

But what’s really mind-blowing is that a single Clark’s nutcracker can side seeds in as many as 5000 locations each year, recalling each spot perfectly. But it’s vital that they do remember where they’ve hidden their food as this is the very key to their survival.

Researchers have even tested these birds’ food-caching abilities using the aforementioned mirror test. It seems that the birds were able to differentiate between themselves in the mirror and other birds.

7. Hummingbirds

There are hundreds of species of hummingbirds and they’re all pretty clever little creatures. Amazingly, it’s thought that these birds are able to use basic math to locate food. No, they’re not solving complex equations but studies have shown that they’re able to learn which container in a sequence contains food.

Out of all birds, hummingbirds have the largest brain in comparison to the size of their bodies. This aids their memory, which allows them to learn information about individual flowers within their habitat, including how long it’ll take the bloom to refill with nectar! This becomes even more unbelievable when you learn that a single hummingbird can visit more than 1000 flowers every day.

While they aren’t particularly social birds, some females have been seen observing older females building a nest; learning from them.

8. Woodpecker Finch

The woodpecker finch is one of those remarkable birds that is able to use tools and it’s thought that it learns this ability through observing other members of the species. The birds are known for using hook-like twigs to obtain insects from inside holes in trees.

However, during studies, it was shown that, despite observing older woodpecker finches, not all of the subjects mimicked this behavior. Therefore, it’s thought that, in many cases, the birds will use trial and error to figure out which tools work best and how to use them.

Even more impressive is that the birds are able to select tools according to their needs. They’ll first peel the bark off the tree and then assess the shape of the hole underneath. This allows them to choose a straight tool, a curved one, or whatever else they might need.

9. Fork-Tailed Drongo

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and some birds realize the importance of getting what they need in order to survive. The fork-tailed drongo is one of these birds and it uses mimicry to scare other species before swooping in to steal their food. Using the alarm call of other species, it can distract the birds and take whatever it needs; deceptive but innovative!

Amazingly, the fork-tailed drongo dominates the sub-savannah mimicking up to 45 calls of other birds. While most birds are unaware of this, the weaver realizes the deception but continues to live alongside the drongo, who will also reliably provide alarm calls, keeping the weavers safe.

10. Green Heron

Humans have long been known for their fishing skills and while many birds prey on fish, it’s not often you see one with skills that rival Luke Clausen and Skeet Reese. But the green heron certainly gives these humans a run for their money.

These birds use bait fishing techniques to lure their prey to the surface. They’ll take things like worms, bugs, and even pieces of bread to attract fish which they’ll then snap up.

11. African Grey Parrot

African grey parrots are among some of the best communicators in terms of mimicking human speech. Not only can they learn up to 1000 words, but there have been some examples of the species, such as the infamous Alex, who have been able to use their speech to tell their owners what they want. Alex was said to be as intelligent as a five-year-old at the time of his death.

But it isn’t only humans that they’ll form bonds with. In fact, aside from a very small number of primates, these parrots are the only animals in the world that have been shown to be able to recognize when another animal needs help and respond accordingly.

While they are common pets, African greys need a lot of attention and mental stimulation. It shows how smart they are when we consider studies performed on Alex, who was able to use numbers and label items in a numerical sequence with the correct numbers.

It’s thought that these sophisticated behaviors, not only in African greys but also in other parrot species, come as a result of the layout and wiring of their brains

12. Amazon Parrots

There are more than 30 species of Amazon parrots, and they are popular pets. But as with other types of parrots, they need a lot of mental stimulation. It’s even been shown that when they don’t receive this, they can have behavioral issues.

These birds are highly trainable and are thought to be one of the easiest birds to teach to speak. They can easily pick up words and phrases when kept as a pet.

But where does this intelligence come from? Well, studies on Amazon parrots have shown that their intelligence is built within their genes and when compared to humans, they’re actually the avian equivalent in terms of smartness. Compared to other birds, these parrots are as genetically different as humans and apes so it’s clear to see why they’re considered some of the most intelligent.

13. Keas

Keas are a type of parrot that are found in New Zealand but are sadly endangered with only around 7000 left in the wild.

These birds are adept at using tools and have often been observed using tools to obtain food. What’s more, during studies, keas have successfully solved puzzles and problems knowing that there is a treat as a reward.

Keas are quite mischievous birds but their intellect surpasses that of the average monkey. In tests, these birds were shown to understand probability in the same capacity as the great apes as well as use information to make judgements, a skill previously thought to only be possessed by humans.

In fact, the bird has won the title of the most intelligent bird in the world, even having played chess with Attenborough himself!

14. Cockatoos

If you thought it was only humans that enjoyed making music, think again. Cockatoos in Australia have been seen using sticks and twigs to create a beat and have demonstrated an ability to show rhythm.

Object permanence is the ability to understand that, while an item may be out of view, it still exists. This is a trait not often seen in animals but cockatoos are perfectly capable of understanding this concept. This is something that humans don’t develop until later in life; babies do not understand that their parents are still there when they go into another room, for example. But cockatoos have been shown to be smarter than the average human toddler!

But it doesn’t end there, these birds are also excellent problem solvers. In one study, a cockatoo golf game was set up and when the birds successfully got the ball in the hole, it released a treat. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the birds to cotton on.

15. Macaws

Macaws are a type of parrot, and they’re extremely intelligent. In many cases, they have the same level of smarts as a human toddler, and they’re popular pets. But again, they’re a big responsibility as their minds need constant stimulation.

One of the things that really demonstrates how clever these birds are is their communication skills. They’re able to mimic and create sounds to communicate but also use physical signs such as blushing to show how they’re feeling. In the wild, adult macaws will assign sounds to each of the young for more effective communication.

What’s more, their emotional intelligence is astounding with the macaw being able to show affection and even feel jealousy and other similar human emotions. Incredibly, these birds are even able to read human emotion and some have been seen to comfort their owners by kissing them when they’re sad.

They’re also excellent at using tools and are very smart when it comes to food. A macaw will be able to select its favorite seeds from a bowl of mixed seeds as well as hiding food when it feels as though something else will steal it.

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