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 Bird Intelligence Bird brain

We have all heard someone called birdbrain or featherhead, indicating they were dim witted or brainless.

As it turns out birds have gotten a bum rap.  When compared to other animals some birds are actually pretty smart.  A good example is corvids or the crow family.  In the Audubon Society of Encyclopedia of North American Birds, ornithologist John K. Terres says corvids have achieved the highest degree of intelligence of any birds.  Irene Pepperberg know for her studies in animal cognition writes that corvids cognitive abilities are equal to many primates such as chimps and gorillas  

There is a little disagreement over just which one of this family is the smartest. Some say the American crow is at the top of the list, others say it is the raven and still other say jays or jackdaws.  Whoever is right, it is agreed that Corvids are smart.

Some say mynas and parrots are just as intelligent, if even a little brighter.  Everyone is familiar with the ability to mimic songs, calls and other sounds many birds have, but they can do more than that.

There is one study of a parrot that was able to identify more than 100 items by name.  In addition the bird could also tell similarities and differences. If shown 3 triangles of different colors and asked what is the same or different the bird would give the correct answer (shape or color) four out of 5 times.  Birds such as nutcrackers will hide thousands of seeds, and remember where they stored them as much as nine months later.

Learning Ability

Some say birds are nothing more than living robots, with every thing they do programmed into their genes from birth. There is evidence however that suggests that while this is true, certain birds have advanced learning abilities.  For instance some birds such as jackdaws do not automatically recognize what animals are predators.  They learn it from their parents.  Many songbirds are able to learn and teach vocal communication, the skill which makes human language possible.  Studies have shown that nuthatches learn and understand the calls of chickadees.  When chickadees announce the presents of a predator, nuthatches will join with them to mob and chase away the predator.  Research by psychologist Helmut Prior shows that magpies have self-recognition, a trait previously thought to only exists in higher orders of mammals.  The researchers placed colored dots on the necks of magpies.  When the birds saw the dots in a mirror they would try to remove them.

Bird Brains

The cerebral cortex is the main area of intelligence for most animals.  Birds have a relatively small cortex. In the 1960s neurologist Stanley Cobb discovered that birds use a part of the brain, which mammals do not have, as their main area of intelligence. This is the hpertriatum, and is at the front of a birdís brain.  It was found that the larger this part of the brain was the better birds did on tests to measure intelligence.

Not surprisingly Corvids are the group of birds where this is the largest.  In fact their brain to body ratio equals that of dolphins and is almost the same as ours.

Social Behavior a Sign of Intelligence

Scientists say the more social animals are the smarter they tend to be.  Aside from humans and other primates, dolphins and whales are at the top of this list.  Parrots and corvids are also highly social.

Pinyon Jay John Marzluff and Russell Balda studied Pinyon jays and charted their genealogy.  Pinyon jays live in troops, which consist of many clans.  In the fall the troops will congregate into flocks of thousands of birds.  Later they will again separate into the original clans.

Pinyon Jay photo by Dave Menke US Wildlife

Corvids, such as crows, ravens, and magpies may separate into a family group for things like nesting and territory defense, and then congregate into huge flocks.  These flocks, which may include a variety of birds such as crows, Magpies, and Jackdaws, can get huge.  There are sites in central U.S. that get flocks, which are estimated to be as many as 10 million crows.

Intelligence experts say this kind of social interaction requires superior intelligence.  The reason is that for this to happen the birds must not only be able to recognize, and remember companions, but must also be able to notice, and interpret small changes in appearance and behavior.

Play and Games

Yes birds are even known to play games, and even intentionally tell lies.  Examples of games played are drop and catch where one bird will drop a stick another will catch it.  If one bird hangs upside down and passes an object form its feet to its beak and back again others are likely to do the same thing.  This shows the ability to learn behaviors.  One game played is where a bird will stand on a mound, and hold a stick while another tries to take it from him.

cootI once observed a coot playing on a foam box top.  It started with two other coots pushing him around.  When the other birds tired of this, he continued on his own.  The coot would flap his wings to get the top moving forward.  He would then ride the top, standing on one leg until it stopped.  When it stopped he would start flapping again.  He repeated this process many times.


Some birds will cooperate while hunting.  An example is what could be called bait and switch.  Two or more birds discover another animal with something they would like to eat.  One bird will land, and distract the animal maybe by pecking at its tail. As soon as the animal turns the other bird swoops in and takes the food.  There is even teamwork between species, an example is birds such as chickadees and nuthatches working together to drive away a predator.

Use of Tools

bird tools

Obviously they use material to build nests but it goes beyond that.

Crows have been known to steal fish from ice fishermen by using their beaks and feet to pull up the lines when the men were not looking.

Some birds have been observed using twigs to probe for grubs they could not reach. They may even use a bit of invention by bending or shaping the twig for this purpose.

Even more fascinating are some types of birds that seem to use bait for fishing.  In this instance they will drop an insect in the water and wait for a fish to surface.

Some birds such as jays will wedge a nut into forked branches to make it easier to crack.  American crows have been observed dropping rocks or holding them in their beaks while they pound on nuts to open them.

Crows in Japan have an interesting way of cracking nuts.  They will wait at a traffic light.  When the traffic stops they will run out an place a nut in front of a car tire.  When the traffic stops again they will retrieve their cracked nut.  View video 


African honeyguides are small birds named for their habit of leading people to bee hives.  The birds will call and fly backwards to get the people to follow them.  After the people open the hive and retrieve the hone the birds feed on the left over honey and larvae.

Please Pass the Ant

Birds often clean their feathers, one good use of a birdbath. This preening as it is called, both cleans and repairs the feathers so they are better for flying and insulation.  It also helps fight parasites.  Most birds will spread oil form the preen gland during this process.

Some do what is called Anting. This is where they pick up an ant, and rub it through their feathers, or even sit in ants. It is thought that the formic acid from ants works as a repellent for fleas and lice.

Where did I put that?

In experiments jays have been shown to remember exactly where they hid acorns.  In one study jays were able to find seeds almost a year after they hid them.  It is thought that they remember these by forming, and storing detailed image maps of the surrounding area.

This page scratches the surface. If you are interested in more on the brains and intelligence of birds I suggest reading Bird Brains by Candace Savage.

Learn about favorite backyard birds.

More about Parts and Anatomy of a Bird.

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