Birds are capable of extraordinary behavioral feats, from solving complex puzzles to tool making. There may be good reasons for that. A new study shows that, pound for pound, birds pack more neurons into their small brains than mammals, including primates.
Birds can manufacture tools, cache food, plan for the future, pass the mirror test, use insight to solve problems, and understand cause-and-effect. They’ve also been observed to hide food in front of other birds, and then relocate that food when the other birds aren’t looking. This suggests that birds have a “theory of mind,” which means they’re capable of inferring what other birds are thinking. Very few animals can do that.
Which Bird Is The Smartest?
Following are the birds that show some sort of intelligence in their behaviour.
1. Crows and Ravens
- Ravens have full-blown cognitive skills and before reaching full maturity they can rival adult great apes. Another, indicates that problem-solving crows perform similarly to children under seven years of age.
- They can plan for the future: Many animals undertake tasks that aid their future welfare, such as beavers and squirrels storing food to eat when resources are scarce. But no animals, other than humans and possibly some apes, were thought to forward-plan and map out a number of possible future outcomes. But it was proved for the first time that ravens had planning capabilities. In one experiment, they were trained to return a token in exchange for a food reward, before then having to choose between several items, including a low-quality snack and one of the tokens. 73 percent of the time, the birds picked the token, assuming that better food would be provided, rather than grab the food in front of them.
- They have great memories: While corvids cleverly remember experiences that enhance their lives, such as in the experiment just mentioned, their feats of memory go way beyond this. As biologist John Marzluff recorded, crows can hold a grudge. He discovered the birds remembered his face and didn’t enjoy being caught and tagged by him. Not only that, they told other crows about this human troublemaker by signaling danger when he appeared, so they resented him too and acted aggressively towards him. Researchers revealed that ravens were able to remember a human who cheated them out of a snack and were also more positive towards humans who exhibited fairer behaviour.
- They use tools: It’s well documented that corvids can use tools to obtain food, but also use sticks to carry more than one item at once. Remarkably their tool use is even more involved: they found crows understand the science of water displacement, being able to add items to tubes containing liquid to secure a treat. But even more remarkably, research has also shown that corvids can make tools, as well as use them. Video evidence has been shared, showing crows stripping bark from a twig and fashioning a hook, which they used to prize hard-to-reach food from crevices.
2. African Gray Parrots
Besides being one of the most popular pet bird species, African gray parrots are also one of the most intelligent. Anecdotal evidence from those who care for African grays has long suggested that the parrots possess high innate intelligence.
American animal behaviourist and psychologist Irene Pepperberg vindicated those observations with her studies of the cognitive abilities of African grays, using a bird named Alex and, later, additional specimens. Alex, who had been purchased from a pet store in Chicago in 1977, proved receptive to Pepperberg’s attempts to train him using positive behavioral reinforcement.
Among his most significant accomplishments was proving unequivocally that parrots could associate sound and meaning, demolishing long-held theories that birds were capable of only mimicking human voices.
At the time of his death in 2007, he could use English to count to six, correctly label objects of five shapes and seven colours, and differentiate groups of objects by colour, material, and shape. He further used English to communicate to other African grays in Pepperberg’s lab, variously encouraging and chastising their efforts at labeling and categorization.
Studies by other researchers have determined that African grays can use deductive reasoning to correctly choose between pairs of boxes—one containing food, the other empty—when they are shaken and that pairs of parrots are capable of working together to obtain a food reward. The intelligence of the species is thought to rank among the highest of nonhuman animals, including apes and cetaceans; some researchers have compared its reasoning abilities to those of a three- or four-year-old human child.
Cockatoos are recognizable by the showy crests and curved bills. These extremely social birds have endearing personalities and great speaking abilities. As a part of their extreme intelligence, is their ability to imitate a wide variety of sounds and speech. But more than that, when scientists performed intelligent tests with the captive bred Goffin’s cockatoo they learned they are able to actually resist the temptation of eating a food item put in front of them in order to trade it for a better reward later.
This reaction mirrored a famous experiment in the U.S. 40 years ago when nursery school children were put in a room and given a marshmallow, biscuit or pretzel stick. They could either eat it right away or wait 15 minutes and get an extra treat. On average they are larger than most other parrots.
A new study shows that “object permanence” cognitive abilities in cockatoos rival those of the great apes — and four-year-old human children. This level of cognitive development does not occur in human children until they reach four years of age. But according to a newly published study by an international team of scientific researchers and a flock of cockatoos based at the University of Vienna, object permanence abilities in young cockatoos rival those of four-year-old human children.
Magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror. The only other animals known to share this ability are Chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, Giant Manta Rays and humans of about two years of age and older. Magpies are capable of playing a game of hide-and-seek with performance comparable to that of 3-to-5-year-old-children.The “pie” in their name refers to the black-and-white plumage that many of them have.
Their brain-to-body-mass ratio is outmatched only by that of humans and equals that of aquatic mammals and great apes. Magpies have shown the ability to make and use tools, imitate human speech, grieve, play games, and work in teams. When one of their own kind dies, a grouping will form around the body for a “funeral” of squawks and cries. To portion food to their young, magpies will use self-made utensils to cut meals into proper sizes.
Not all birds with the word “magpie” in their name are corvids; for example, the Magpie Goose, Magpie Shrike, and the Australian Magpie aren’t corvids. The U.S. has two species of true magpies: the Black-billed, Pica hudsonia, and the Yellow-billed, Pica nuttalli. There are 11 other species in the world; all of them inhabit Europe and Asia.
5. Clark’s Nutcracker
Nutcrackers are noted for their amazing ability to remember things about their environment and their orientation within it.
Clark’s Nutcrackers, for example, feed on pine seeds and every summer they hide up to 30,000 seeds in preparation for winter — and laboratory tests show they remember where almost all of them are! Each cache contains one to three seeds, so that’s about 10,000 to 15,000 different locations.
The nutcrackers live in areas that tend to get lots of snowfall that hides cache locations. Corvid expert, Jennifer Campbell-Smith, says, “These caches are made during the summer, so in the winter the snow obscures and changes the landscape. That means the birds have to use various levels of landmarks and triangulation to remember the locations…sometimes requiring the birds to burrow under the snow to reach them.
Clark’s Nutcrackers are also smart enough to alter their behavior if they think they’re being watched while hiding a seed. And, they can distinguish between numbers, always picking the larger pile of seeds when offered — even when the piles are very close in number.
Jackdaws are the smallest birds in Corvus, but that doesn’t mean they lack brain power. They’re highly curious, with a fondness for bright, shiny things, and may sometimes carry them away.
They’re easily trained to perform tricks and to speak and have been observed using tools. Lab research shows they can interpret human communicative gestures to find hidden food, such as when a human gazes at food or points to it. They’re also the only non-primates known to communicate with each other using their eyes. They also have complex social and food-sharing behavior.
Some populations of Jackdaws follow deer herds and pluck their hair for nests. In England and Wales, they’ve been known to remove caps from full bottles of delivered milk sitting on porches and drinking from the contents. There are several stories of jackdaws caring for injured relatives.
7. Red-Billed Chough
Chough is kind of a funny name for a bird. It’s easy to pronounce this bird’s name if you say it like you’re saying the word ‘chuff.’ These birds have black plumage similar to other birds on this list. But, they also have a bright red beak and legs.
Choughs are considered very smart birds because of their ability to use an object as a tool to break open a shell. As an example, these birds sometimes eat mollusks. They can use the broken shell of one mollusk to crack open the shell of another.
Rooks are black with a white face and a pointy black beak. The rook is on the most intelligent bird list because of its ability to solve simple problems.
One notable experiment done with a rook involves a bottle half-filled with water. A small worm is floating on the surface of the water in the bottle. Of course, the rook sees the worm and wants to eat it. Though it knows to stick its beak into the bottle, the worm is out of reach due to the low water level. A rook will drop stones into the bottle to raise the water level to reach the worm. Problem solved!
Image Credit: Beak photo created by wirestock – www.freepik.com