Blog Series Week Two: Bird Intelligence

Written By: Sarah Girton

This week is probably my favorite topic in our blog series. It’s a field of study that is continually revealing new discoveries, thus bringing newfound respect and appreciation for birds. In the past, many of the studies conducted on birds focused on behavior and biology, leaving us with a poor impression of just how smart birds really are (hence insults like “bird-brain”). Thankfully, we now have a better understanding of what’s going on behind those sweet faces.

A study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Volume 361 says that, “Comparative psychologists interested in the evolution of intelligence have focused their attention on social primates, whereas birds tend to be used as models of associative learning. However, corvids and parrots, which have forebrains relatively the same size as apes, live in complex social groups and have a long developmental period before becoming independent, have demonstrated ape-like intelligence.”

As mentioned above, two of the most intelligent bird families are the Corvids (crows, ravens, jays, etc) and the Psittacines (Parrots). Both have demonstrated superior problem-solving abilities and even tool use. You might say then, that these birds are technically in the Stone Age! The Caledonian Crow, for example, uses sticks to retrieve bugs from cavities in trees. They can either find their own suitable stick, or else fashion one that suits their needs by trimming and shaping it. The Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture, eats primarily bones. They fly up into the sky with their meal and drop it onto a large rock in order to crack it open. You might think that both of these examples are not particularly impressive, however it takes a keen understanding of cause and effect, and the ability to anticipate future events. In that respect, only a few animal families in the entire world are capable of such actions.

Then there’s the story of Alex the African Grey Parrot, who famously had a human vocabulary of over 100 words. According to Alex’s owner, Irene Pepperberg, who published dozens of scientific papers on him, Alex could also count to six, and identify colors, shapes, and materials. An organization named after Alex, called The Alex Foundation, conducts research on parrot behavior and intelligence. Per their website:

“The goal of The Alex Foundation is to support research that will expand the base of knowledge establishing the cognitive and communicative abilities of parrots as intelligent beings. These findings will be used to encourage the responsible ownership of parrots, conservation and preservation of parrots in the wild, and veterinary research into the psychological diseases and care of these birds. Through these efforts The Alex Foundation, and the memory of Alex, will live on and will accomplish its mission to improve the lives of all parrots worldwide.”

Another study, published in the journal Nature, studied and analyzed syntatic patterns in birds, or their ability to produce new sounds that are recognized by members of the same species. Here is a quote from the abstract of the study:

“European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) accurately recognize acoustic patterns defined by a recursive, self-embedding, context-free grammar. They are also able to classify new patterns defined by the grammar and reliably exclude agrammatical patterns. Thus, the capacity to classify sequences from recursive, centre-embedded grammars is not uniquely human.”

As our knowledge on birds continues to grow and evolve, I think it’s safe to say that we will continue to discover a host of amazing new things. In the last couple decades alone we have greatly broadened our understanding…not only of bird intelligence, but of animal intelligence as a whole. Long gone are the days when humans could revel, lonesome, in their superior brainpower. Instead we need to not only accept, but treasure the fact that we share our planet with some truly marvelous creatures.

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