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Bird brain? Here are the smartest bird species!

by Hélène Carignan

Shutterstock

For years, it was believed that birds weren’t very intelligent (hence the expressions “birdbrain” and “airhead”). However, science has had evidence to the contrary for some time. In fact, the study of bird intelligence has become an active field of research. There’s no doubt about it. Birds are brilliant! Here’s a roundup of the 20 smartest species.

Domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus)

Shutterstock

Yes, it’s the good-old domesticated chicken! Apparently, chicks are particularly bright. According to researchers, newborn chicks who are presented with a given number of objects at birth (which they consider to be their social companions) have the innate ability to identify objects as different and separate individuals. What’s more, they do this no matter how many items they’ve been exposed to beforehand. This is apparently very similar to what a human child’s brain can do!

European starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Wikipedia

Birdsong is constructed according to grammatical patterns. Repetition creates “phrases” that other members of the species recognize. Captive starlings were played some of these phrases and could identify those with “mistakes,” that is, those without the correct syntax. Does that make the European starling a grammar geek?

Bee-eater (Merops orientalis)

Wikimedia Commons / Anton Croos)

The bee-eater only enters its nest when it knows there are no predators in sight. A study showed that this small tropical bird is aware of what its predator can and cannot see. Indeed, when a person was near the nest, but looked away, the bee-eater entered its nest more often than when the individual was looking directly at it. This ability to “see” oneself from another’s perspective is a surprising sign of intelligence in a bird of this size.

Gull (Larus)

Wikimedia Commons / Giacomo Alessandroni

Many people have a negative perception of seagulls. Probably because they have a bad habit of stealing our fries! However, it seems that such crimes are committed according to very complex social rules. In fact, research has shown that these seabirds have a highly elaborate social structure. According to Nikolaas “Niko” Tinbergen, a pioneer in animal behaviour research (for which he received a Nobel Prize), “individuals [of this species] are connected to each other by innumerable ties, invisible in the beginning, yet very real and very strong.”

Great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

Wikimedia Commons / Shiv s fotografia

Cormorants can count. Fishermen in rural China have known this for a long time. Traditionally, these birds were trained to help them capture fish. Captive cormorants were allowed to eat the eighth fish after catching seven.

Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana)

Wikimedia Commons / Donald Hobern

Clark’s nutcracker has a highly developed spatial memory, which helps it remember where it has hidden its caches. To learn more about this subject, scientists placed a Clark’s nutcracker in various situations and hid food in predetermined locations. The Clark’s nutcracker remembered each location, even though the caches were selected by the researchers 10 days in advance.

Rock pigeon (Columba livia)

Wikimedia Commons / Lewis Hulbert

The rock pigeon (also known as the city pigeon because that’s where we often see them) appears to be better at solving statistical problems than humans! The Monty Hall Problem is a puzzle in which a person must pick one of three doors, behind one of which is a prize. Humans are rarely successful at solving this puzzle, but pigeons achieved a 96% success rate after 30 days of testing. When students on the research team volunteered to take the test, they failed to achieve such good results, even after 200 attempts. Evidently, pigeons are pros at empirical probability.

Rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus)

Wikipedia

An experiment involving the rufous hummingbird demonstrated that this tiny bird was, in a way, able to count. During the test, the subject had to find a full feeder among a series of empty ones, spaced in different ways. The hummingbird had to determine the number of empty feeders on each side of a full one. It succeeded!

Parus major

Wikimedia Commons / Francis Franklin

The Parus major has a high level of self-control. In one experiment, the bird had to patiently locate the opening of a transparent cylinder that contained a piece of food rather than impulsively try to reach it through the transparent wall. The Parus major had an average success rate of 80%, scoring much higher than many other animals.

Eurasian magpie (Pica pica)X

Wikimedia Commons / Charles James Sharp

The Eurasian magpie is one of the most intelligent birds in the world. It can use tools and even recognize itself in a mirror, as seen here. In an experiment, researchers placed small coloured dots on the necks of magpies that were only visible to them in their reflection. The birds’ attempts to remove the adhesive dots showed that they did indeed recognize their own reflections.

Goffin’s cockatoo (Cacatua goffiniana)

Wikipedia Commons / Lip Kee Yap

The Goffin’s cockatoo can not only use tools, it can also make them! To verify this, scientists gave the bird various materials to determine if tool-making depended on a particular material. The answer is no. The Goffin’s cockatoo can, in fact, design tools using any material. That’s better than a lot of people!

Common raven (Corvus corax)

Wikimedia Commons / David Hofmann

The common raven can hold a grudge! In one study involving food exchange, ravens were able to recognize those scientists who unfairly traded low-quality food items. In fact, after a single exchange, subjects were able to pinpoint experimenters who had been “fair” with them. Click here to see a raven allowing a person to help it solve a problem.

California scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica)

Wikipedia

The California scrub jay hides its food caches. It also uses all sorts of tactics to prevent its caches from being discovered and stolen. Scientists have shown that this bird remembers the individuals who watched it hide food and alters its future caching behaviour according to the observer.

Rook (Corvus frugilegus)

Wikimedia Commons / Peterwchen

The Puy du Fou theme park in France has trained rooks to pick up cigarette butts and other litter. Each time a bird drops a piece of trash into a box, it receives a reward. According to park employees, the aim is to demonstrate that “nature itself can teach us to take care of the environment.”

Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius)

Wikimedia Commons / Jakub Hałun

A study of captive Eurasian jays demonstrated that the amount of food these birds gather depends on the season. In fact, during the experiment, they stored far more food in far more places in the fall than they did in the spring or summer. Who knows, perhaps they’d be tempted by a pumpkin spice latte?

New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides)

Wikimedia Commons / Toby Hudson

The New Caledonian crow is an excellent problem-solver. In one experiment, the bird demonstrated understanding that it had to follow several steps to reach some food. In effect, it had to use one tool to reach another, which would, in turn, give it access to the food. See it in action here.

Kea (Nestor notabilis)

Wikimedia Commons / JSilver

The kea is a parrot with an impressive ability to compute probability. In one study, the kea was able to deduce which experimenter was more likely to give it a token (which could be exchanged for food). See it here.

Scarlet macaw (Ara macao)

Wikimedia Commons / Quartl

Parrots are capable of making wise investment decisions! In one research study, several parrots, including the scarlet macaw, were given tokens with different values. Accumulating these tokens gave the birds access to a higher-quality food. The majority of the test subjects chose to wait and collect the number of tokens that would give them a walnut (high quality), instead of immediately going for a sunflower seed (low quality). These birds clearly grasp the notion of a nest egg!

Chimango caracara (Milvago chimango)

Wikimedia Commons / Cláudio Dias Timm

The chimango caracara has a great capacity to learn and adapt to new environments. One study showed that this bird is able to quickly get used to different methods of food presentation (using a Plexiglas box). The bird also took less time to reach its reward after the first attempt, proving that it learned how the system worked.

Alex, the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus)

Wikimedia / Alex

Dr. Irene Pepperberg spent years studying Alex, her African grey parrot. Apparently, he was the smartest bird in the world. Alex was able to differentiate colours and shapes and knew more than 100 words (he didn’t just repeat them, but used them properly in new contexts). See it here. Alex died in 2007. His last words were “You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.” It brings a tear to your eye…

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