Bird Intelligence: Research Reveals The Unexpected

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It’s an age-old argument. Do animals have a consciousness? In other words, are they intelligent, and how does that compare to us? Typically, when we ask this question, we refer to the large mammals: the chimps, elephants, and dolphins of the world. But research has turned its sight to an unexpected family – bird intelligence.

It’s time to give the birds the credit they deserve. 

Mockingbird Perched
Mockingbirds are highly intelligent birds that can recognise human faces and attack individuals they recognise as threatening. Image by Andy Morffew via Flickr.

Big Brains Don’t Matter: The Anatomy of Bird Intelligence

We’ve been conditioned to believe that intelligence directly relates to brain size. We were taught that the number of neurons – nerve cells that send messages from the brain to the body – impacts functionality. Less space, less neurons, less intelligence.

From this point of view, it would be impossible for something as small as a bird, for instance a hummingbird, to have significant levels of intelligence.

Another factor discounting bird intelligence is the lack of a neocortex, which was believed to be the seat of high-order intelligence in mammals. Recent studies, however, have found that these beliefs are untrue. 

Birds’ brains are, in fact, smaller than ours. But this does not impact effectiveness. How is that possible?

Essentially, their neurons are densely packed. Packing the neurons tightly allows for high levels of intellect, often equivalent to that of mammals, but within a smaller brain.

Birds additionally substitute the neocortex with a system called the dorsal ventricular ridge. This helps birds interpret and interact with the world around them, leading to learning and other significant cognitive abilities without the need for a neocortex. 

Birds prove that there is more than one way to reach intelligence. This opens the door to many miraculous scientific discoveries related to, and unrelated to, bird species.

Identifying Bird Intelligence

Intelligence is measured differently from scientist to scientist, but there are some commonly held beliefs in which factors determine the level of intelligence an animal holds. 

Magpie Can Recognise Themselves in a Mirror
Magpies can recognise themselves in a mirror. Self-recognition is one of the main traits scientists use to deem intelligence. Image by Jayney R via Flickr.

Cognition

The first is cognition. Cognition is the ability to act, memorize, and learn through observation. It has long been believed that birds act solely on instinct. Yet it turns out that birds learn by watching their parents and peers and through trial and error. This includes attracting mates, foraging, nest building, adhering to migratory pathways, learning, mimicking, and deciphering regional song dialects, and more. 

Problem-Solving

The next agreed-upon factor is novel problem solving. A myriad of bird tests assess problem-solving abilities in a range of birds. The results are nearly unanimous in finding that birds, large to small, can solve puzzles and navigate mazes to get the reward they seek. This is done through both trial-and-error and the use of innovative strategies. 

Memory and Planning

Memory and planning are yet another sign of intelligence. Birds tend to show striking memory ability and retention. Birds not only remember migratory paths, but also where they stored caches of food to retrieve before the bitter wind cold sets in. They must plan these food stores and have the ability to relocate them at the correct time to ensure their survival.

Common examples of birds with this capability are mockingbirds and nutcrackers. They can even recognize who is watching and make burial decisions based on the assumed safety of their food store. 

Self-Recognition

The most famous intelligence test is the mirror test. Researchers show an animal themself in the mirror, and if they recognize their reflection, they are deemed concious.

In one study with magpies, scientists placed a red dot on their chest. When the magpies saw their reflection, they pecked at the sticker on their chest, proving they recognized themselves in the mirror. 

Tool Making and Use

The Striated Heron Uses Bait to Lure Fish
The Striated Heron uses bait to lure fish, a remarkable example of bird intelligence. Image by Benny Lim via Flickr.

The trait that sparks our interest the most is tool use. Even without hands, birds have been sighted using a range of tools to complete a desired task. They can even make sophisticated tools that rival those of the great apes. Tool use requires reasoning and foresight, making this a significant factor in the search for intelligence. 

Crows use water displacement by placing objects in a water source to raise food to the surface within reach. Amazingly, they can even understand that light sticks won’t do the trick and will choose heavier objects like stones instead.

Other examples are: finches that use thorns to impale their prey, Egyptian vultures which use rocks to break open shells, and striated herons which use bait to lure fish into striking range. 

Social Bonds

Social bonds mark consciousness and intelligence as well. Birds remember faces and make decisions based on their perceived safety determined by past interactions. Birds additionally remember their mates’ appetite preference and will choose which foraged items to bring home to their significant other based upon this memory. 

Many bird groups exhibit monogamy with exceptionally complex suiting rituals. They may separate during the breeding season but will fly thousands of miles to reunite with their mate, and they can easily be recognized from a flock. Birds also form hierarchies and alliances and engage in cooperative interactions and behaviors. 

Big Birds VS Common Birds

Not all birds are created equal. While all species have an unforeseen level of intelligence, some carry greater intelligence than others. Many of these large birds are comparable in intelligence and ability to a seven-year-old human or fully matured great ape.  

The Psittaciformes and Corvidae, including birds such as parrots, cockatoos, crows, ravens, and eagles, are examples of this. Large birds of these classes exhibit complex social behavior, efficient learning and memory, advanced problem-solving skills, mimicry, and tool use.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not due to brain size but instead development speed. These birds grow slower than their smaller companions and spend more time with mom and dad learning the tricks of the trade.

Living within their complex social groups, like humans and apes, may also be a factor in their high intelligence. 

This is not intended to discount smaller, common birds. While big birds show incredible intelligence, common birds still show significant levels of intelligence and check all the traits mentioned above that researchers look for when determining consciousness and intelligence.

Remarkable Bird Intelligence Found in Recent Study of Pied Hornbills

Pied Hornbill Scores as High as Primates in Cognitive Tests
Pied Hornbills score as high as primates in cognitive tests. Image by Andrew Hunt via Flickr.

Now that we’ve proven bird intelligence, let’s take it a step further. There was a recent study in which the Pied Hornbills’ intelligence rating was off the charts. These birds scored as high as primates in cognitive tests.

This study proved these birds show:

  • Object permanence and displacement
  • Memory
  • Spatial Reasoning
  • Logical Inference

All the aforementioned traits are critical to evolution and believed to be the steppingstones humans used to reach our level of intelligence and capabilities today. This is a major breakthrough in our learning about the cognitive abilities of other species. 

Why We Need To Consider Bird Brains in Conservation

What does this mean in terms of conservation? All animals have inherent value. They deserve to live simply because they exist. They have no lesser value or rights than we do. But piling on a significant level of intelligence, social structures, ability, and emotion adds to the equation. This dramatically increases the need to protect these vital creatures. 

Habitat loss, pollution, hunting, the introduction of invasive species, and other human actions lead to the extinction of many bird groups. We must counteract our impact now. We would not let our fellow humans suffer the consequences of our actions; therefore, we should not let our fellow intelligent beings suffer or, in time, disappear. 

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