What Science Understands About Bird’s Brains: They Might Be Smarter Than You Think

December 30, 2021 // 13 minute read

Articles » Bird Brain Science

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You probably heard the term “bird brain” a few times, and from what we all know, this term is always used to describe a stupid person. However, as much as most people would like to assume, birds aren’t stupid. Here we’ll dive deep into the topic of bird brain science

Bird brains may be smaller than ours, but it’s found that many birds have intelligence that can be compared to humans. Several research and studies have shown that bird brains are very complex, which explains how pigeons, ravens, and crows have shown intelligent behaviors through the years. 

In this article, we’re diving deeper into the birds’ brains. We’ll talk about: 

  • Bird brains vs. Mammal brains
  • The complexity of bird brains
  • Evolution of Bird Intelligence
  • Intelligent bird behaviors
  • The most intelligent birds in the world
  • FAQs

If you’re interested in diving deeper into any of these bird brain topics, read on… 

Bird Brains vs. Mammal Brains: How Different Are They? 

So how different are bird brains from mammal brains? The main difference between the two is really the structure. 

We humans and other mammals are found to have a structure in our brain called the neocortex. This is what makes up most of the cerebral hemispheres and allows us to perform higher cognitive functions such as: 

  • Abstract thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Memory-forming
  • Complex communication
  • Expressing emotions and personalities

Although all mammals have this structure, no brain already comes as large and complex as the human brain. And this is what made us believe that we are the most intelligent species. 

However, through various research, it has been found that mammals are not the only species that can perform complex thinking processes. Because birds, which don’t have a neocortex, appear to be very smart as well.  

According to a study published by proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, bird brains are packed with neurons. In fact, six birds have a higher density of neurons in the brain than us.

When a brain has a higher density of neurons, it somehow allows more connections, increasing their ability to process information despite their tiny brains. 

It’s also possible that the area where the neurons are found made this possible. It’s found that larger birds have more neurons in the pallium compared to the other regions of their brains. On the other hand, mammals have more neurons in the cerebellum. 

But, of course, this doesn’t mean that birds are more intelligent than us. After all, we have more non-neuronal cells, which play a massive role in how our brain functions. But what this research does tells us is that birds are more intelligent than we thought. 

Inside the Bird Brain

Scientists and researchers have always seen bird brains to be highly disorganized. It’s primarily made of clusters of neurons gathered together into nuclei. And because there is no layered cortex, just like with the brain of mammals, researchers assumed that birds are not intelligent.

However, bird brains are more complex than what we thought and have displayed impressive, intelligent, and complex behaviors in many ways: 

  • They are good at visual processing and even surpass humans’ abilities. 
  • They can follow the gaze of humans or animals. 
  • They communicate with intention. 
  • They can form abstract concepts. 
  • They can remember where things are even after they disappear from their sight. 
  • They are self-aware. 
  • They can make their own tools. 

It turns out that bird brains are small to allow birds to fly. But when you look at it closely, it’s just as large as many mammals. 

Even though at first look, you’ll find bird brains disorganized, it’s actually well-integrated. It developed and evolved in a very coordinated way. So, when there are certain changes in one aspect of the brain, the rest follows, allowing them to adapt to certain changes and increasing their overall intelligence. 

Evolution of Bird’s Intelligence

No research has actually shown how bird intelligence evolved through the years. After all, in the past, many researchers just assumed that bird brains don’t really have great intellectual capacity because of how their brain is structured and their brain’s size. 

We can assume, though, that birds have an incredible ability to adapt to their environment. They remember only what’s needed for their survival. 

Through the years, most researchers have also focused on studying chickens, pigeons, or quails, whose brains are not as well-developed as corvids and parrots. 

Many Times Birds Have Shown Their Intelligence

Now, let us take a look at the many times birds have shown their intelligence: 

  • Carrion crows in Japan have been found to place nuts on roads for cars to crush the shells. After the shells are crushed, they then retrieve the meat while following the traffic lights to stay safe. 
  • Woodpecker finches in Galapagos Islands trim sticks and twigs at a proper length to use as tools to search for insects. 
  • Heron species use bread fed to ducks, leftovers from picnics, or small leaves to attract fish as they hunt. 
  • Northern mockingbirds easily recognize individuals who threaten or attract their nests and attack those people only. 
  • Jays hide hundreds of seeds and nuts in the fall and retrieve them throughout winter. 
  • Eurasian magpie is believed to be the only bird species that passed the mirror test, proving that it’s self-aware. 
  • Hummingbirds may probably have the tiniest brains, but they can remember which flowers they recently drained of nectar. 

Of course, these are only a few of the many intelligent ways birds have shown their intelligence. There are many more, but it would probably take us a long time to write everything down.  

Bird Brain Science: The Most Intelligent Birds

Crows

When it comes to intelligence, crows definitely tops this list. After all, these birds are second to humans when it comes to cognitive abilities. This generally means that they’re smarter than apes, and there’s a reason why researchers said so. 

  1. They can make and customize tools
  2. They can solve problems
  3. They can understand casualty
  4. They can remember human faces

Crows seem to have developed their high cognitive ability due to their long childhood, just like humans. 

As you know, humans spend their whole childhood with their parents to get all the help they need while their brains are still developing. And though this is rare with birds, corvids are different. 

Younger crows and jays are found to not leave their parents for up to 4 years. That’s almost equivalent to a decade in human age, which is probably the amount of nurturing they need from their parents. 

Around this time, it seems that parents pass on some knowledge to their young, making corvids one of the most intelligent birds we know today. 

Ravens

Ravens, belonging to the same family as crows, are nearly as intelligent as them. They have also shown their intelligence in various situations: 

  1. They hunt in pairs and cooperate with each other 
  2. They can understand the cause and effect, helping them solve complicated problems
  3. They can successfully plan ahead than 4-year-old kids

Related Article: Crows vs Ravens, Which Is It?

Jackdaws

Another bird also comes from the Corvus family, the Jackdaws. Despite being the smallest species in their family, they’re as intelligent as ravens and crows. 

They are known for being curious birds and love taking bright and shiny things. But they can also perform tricks, communicate well, and use tools like the crows. But one impressive behavior is recognizing human gestures. They can tell where the food is by observing human gazes on food and when they point at it. 

Unique to these birds is the ability to communicate to their species through eyes. 

African Grey Parrot

When it comes to intelligent animals, it’s impossible not to include a parrot on the list. After all, they’re the only birds that we see to have the ability to speak. 

With that said, one special parrot has to be included in this list. Despite not being as colorful as the other species of parrots, these birds are the smartest among them. 

Based on studies, this parrot is actually capable of understanding the meaning of what we say. If other parrots simply mimic human sounds, the African Grey Parrot understands them. 

One bird of this species, in particular, Alex, can recognize names of objects, colors, shapes, and measurements. And if that isn’t impressive enough, Alex can also ask questions to gain knowledge of what the thing is. 

Eurasian Magpie

Of course, it’s impossible not to include the Eurasian Magpie when we mentioned it earlier. It’s the only bird species that passed the mirror test, thereby concluding that it has self-awareness. 

Even most cats and dogs are not self-aware. They will attack or run away when they see their reflection. But these birds don’t. 

Kea

Kea has been listed by many to be among the top ten most intelligent birds. It belongs to the family of parrots and is found in New Zealand. They are endangered and the only species that lives in an Alpine climate. 

These birds are known to be great problem-solvers. They can solve almost any problem given to them by researchers and have even outscored gibbons and apes.  

Cockatoo

Cockatoos belong to the parrot family and are also very intelligent. Because of their highly social behavior, they speak well and can imitate a wide variety of sounds and speech. 

One research even concluded that these birds are smarter than human toddlers for showing a great sense of control. 

One bird, in particular, called Goffin, demonstrated this ability. They offered him food, and he was able to resist the temptation, thinking that he’d be rewarded with something better later. 

Jays

Jays are among the favorite backyard visitors of bird watchers. They have extremely colorful feathers, which bring a different vibrance to your home that is nice to look at. But aside from just being beautiful birds, Jays are also energetic and highly intelligent. 

One particular species is the Scrub-Jay. They are found to be the only birds that do detailed planning before doing any future action. For example, they’ll plan their breakfast for the next day, how much they’ll get, and where they’ll consume it. Before storing food, they would also plan where they’ll store it and how much they’ll store. 

Pinyon Jays also show impressive intelligence when it comes to their social hierarchy. It’s said that they would know their rank after just interacting with other birds of their species, saving them time and energy from fighting. 

Another display of intelligence by Pinyon Jays is when they hoard over 20,000 seeds in the fall to prepare for winter, and yet they still remember where they kept those seeds. 

Nutcrackers

Nutcrackers are descendants of crows and jays, making them really smart birds, too. 

Just like the jays, they are excellent planners and can easily remember where they save their food. They have the amazing ability to identify things in their environment, which helps them find precise food locations. 

Clark’s nutcracker is known to be the smartest species. They can keep large quantities of food for winter in over 3,000 locations. What makes it more impressive is that they can remember exactly where those locations are. 

Even humans have a hard time remembering where they put things around the house, but these birds can remember where they keep their stash of food in 3,000 different locations. 

FAQs

How small is a bird’s brain? 

Bird brains are only the size of the nut, which made everyone assume that because it’s tiny, they’re stupid. This is also where the idiom “bird brain” came from, as an insult to people that we think are dumb. 

However, now that more research has been done, birds aren’t stupid as most of us thought. 

What is the smartest bird? 

Crows are known as the most intelligent bird among all bird species. They are excellent problem-solvers, tool-makers, communicators, and a whole lot more. They have displayed their intelligence so many times that no one can deny how bright these birds are. 

Why do birds stare? 

Birds returning your gaze is one behavior that shows how intelligent they are. They get to know what your intentions are or feelings through eye contact. It is also said that they look at people or animals to see if they are in any danger. 

Do birds recognize humans? 

Yes, most birds do. Research suggests that most birds can recognize who among us is a friend or an enemy. They can also differentiate between human voices, which is often a key to their survival. 

Final Thoughts About Bird Brain Science & Intelligence

As you can see, birds are more intelligent than we think. 

They might not have the same brain structure as ours, but their brain is very complex. Perhaps due to their nature of continuous survival, birds adapt to different situations, learning and gaining knowledge on how they can survive. 

If you can notice, birds develop intellectual abilities that help them survive. 

  • They have incredible memory because they need to know where they kept their food to survive. 
  • They create impressive tools, so they have something to use to catch food. 
  • They recognize human faces to identify who has been mean to them before. This somehow helps them survive or get away from danger. 

In other words, bird brains are wired to make them survive, which is already very impressive. 

So, even if their cognitive ability is not equal to ours, you can’t deny that these animals are smart. And probably the next time you’d have to call someone “bird brain”, use it as a compliment because it really is. 

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