Until the 21st century, birds were largely dismissed as simpletons. How smart can you be with a brain the size of a nut?
And yet the more we study bird intelligence, the more those assumptions are breaking down. Studies have shown, for instance, that crows make tools, ravens solve puzzles, and parrots boast a diverse vocabulary.
Birds make good use of the allotted space for their tiny brains by packing in lots of neurons—more so than mammals, in fact. (Read: “Think ‘Birdbrain’ Is an Insult? Think Again.”)
But what actually qualifies a bird as smart? The definition should be broader than it is, scientists say.
“Being able to fly to Argentina, come back, and land in the same bush—we don’t value that intelligence in a lot of other organisms,” says Kevin McGowan, an expert on crows at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. “We’ve restricted the playing field to things we think only we can do.”
But if we’re talking about standard intelligence—ie. mimicking human speech or solving problems—“it always comes down to parrots and corvids,” McGowan says.
Members of the corvid family (songbirds including ravens, crows, jays, and magpies, to name a few) are among the most intelligent birds, though common ravens may have the edge on tackling tough problems, according to McGowan.
A study published in 2017 in the journal Science revealed that ravens even pre-plan tasks—a behavior long believed unique to humans and their relatives. (Related: “We Knew Ravens Are Smart. But Not This Smart.”)
In the simple experiment, scientists taught the birds how a tool can help them access a piece of food. When offered a selection of objects almost 24 hours later, the ravens selected that specific tool again—and performed the task to get their treat.
“Monkeys have not been able to solve tasks like this,” Mathias Osvath, a researcher at Sweden's Lund University, said in a previous interview.
While crows do nearly as well as ravens solving intelligence tests, McGowan stresses that crows have an uncanny memory for human faces—and can remember if that particular person is a threat.
“They seem to have a good sense that every person is different and that they need to approach them differently.”
For instance, crows are warier of new people than ravens are—but conversely are more comfortable with humans they had interacted with before, according to a study published in 2015 in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.
“The crows around here, they know my face,” says McGowan. While at first the birds living near the lab seemed to dislike McGowan for approaching their nests, they love him now that he’s started leaving the birds healthy treats. (Read more about how ravens hold grudges against humans.)
“They know my car, they know my walk, they know me 10 miles away from where they’ve ever encountered me before. They’re just amazing that way.”
In a now well-known study published in 2015 in the journal Animal Behaviour, researchers donned masks and, while holding dead, taxidermied crows, laid out food in areas frequented by crows in Washington State.
Almost universally, the crows responded by scolding the people—and even alerting other crows in the vicinity. When the researchers returned weeks later wearing the same masks, but empty-handed, the crows continued to harass them and were wary of the area for days after. (Read: “Do Crows Hold Funerals for Their Dead?”)
African Grey Parrots
While many species of parrots have a penchant for human speech, the African grey parrot is the most accomplished.
“There’s a lot going on in those little walnut brains of theirs,” says McGowan. “And they live so long that they can amass a lot of intelligence and a lot of memories.”
In the 1950s, Harvard comparative psychologist Irene Pepperberg began teaching an African grey parrot, Alex, English sounds. Before he died prematurely in 2007, Alex mastered roughly a hundred words, could use them in context, and even grasped the concepts of same, different, and zero.
Now Pepperberg is working with another African grey, Griffin, at Harvard University. Griffin can label shapes and colors, and is working on the concept of zero.
Cockatoos are the first animal observed making musical instruments.
When courting, male palm cockatoos of Australia use twigs and seed pods to create drumsticks. Each male has a unique musical style—a rhythm of his own that he creates by beating the tools against hollow trees.
Though palm cockatoos don’t dance while drumming, other species have exhibited a gift for boogying to a beat.
Video of Snowball, a captive sulphur-crested cockatoo, jamming to the Backstreet Boys took the Internet by storm a few years ago. (Watch:
“Snowball the Cockatoo Can Dance Better Than You.”)
Snowball’s performance is a delight to watch, but it also helped scientists discover that birds can follow a beat. By speeding the song up and down, they determined that Snowball actually does have a sense of tempo and rhythm.
Though corvids and parrots get most of the credit for being brainy, McGowan says, “There are sleeper birds out there” that we haven’t fully appreciated.
Yet when presented with classic tests given to crows and ravens, great-tailed grackles passed with flying colors. (Read: “Watch Clever Birds Solve a Challenge from Aesop’s Fables.”)
According to the study, published in 2016 in PeerJ, the grackles were given puzzles containing food as a prize. Not only did they learn to solve the problem, when the rules of the puzzle changed, the birds nimbly adapted their strategies.
What’s more, each grackle approached the puzzle in a different way, demonstrating individual styles of thinking—a quality they share with us humans.