Birds do have brains

Birds are generally thought to be stupid animals, possibly because their brains look so tiny compared to our own. For several decades scientists have learned and taught that birds’ brains are very simple and that their actions are driven by instinct alone. However, there’s a lot of complex bird behavior, from crow tool-using to parrot conversation, that doesn’t coincide with this simple-brained view. This contradiction has led many bird experts to further explore bird intelligence.

A consortium of bird experts declared in February 2005’s Nature Neuroscience Reviews that, contrary to previous beliefs, the bird brain is as complex, flexible, and inventive as any mammalian brain. The group of 29 bird scientists from six countries spent seven years renaming the parts of both bird and mammal brains to more accurately reflect the complex ways they are believed to work.

Of course, among the thousands of bird species there is great variation in intellectual ability. Birds in the corvid family, which includes crows, ravens, and magpies, have the largest overall brain size of all birds and seem to be the most intelligent. Relative to its body size, the crow brain is actually the same size as a chimpanzee’s.

Chimpanzees get a lot of credit for using and making their own tools, but few people realize that New Caledonian crows have been able to do it, too. The crows make hooks and spears for grub hunting by carving twigs and barbed leaves with their beaks and feet. When a crow in a laboratory was given metal wires of various lengths and a four-inch vertical pipe with food at the bottom, she chose a four-inch wire, made a hook, and retrieved the food.

Bird intelligence may also be linked to the need to migrate, according to Daniel Sol of the Independent University of Barcelona in Spain. Based on a study he conducted in 2005, crows and other birds that stay put in winter can do so because they are smarter and more resourceful. He believes that the birds that need to migrate are a bit less intelligent than those that do not.

Social savvy

Apes and corvids are both very social animals, which supports the theory that intelligence evolved to process and use social information, like who is friends with whom. Crows have been observed to have a complex social organization. Though they may appear to feed in masses, the mass consists of smaller family units. During migration, the group will often be divided according to age, too. Some crows take on specific tasks for the benefit of the group. For example, “scouts” are sent out to warn the others of danger or lead the group to food.

Crows also seem to have a code for dealing with conflict or bad behaviour. It is never quite clear to humans what crime a bird has committed, but the groups have been observed to convene then harass or even execute individuals.

Magpies have a similarly complicated society. They are organized in dominance hierarchies and frequently attempt conquest. A group of high-ranking males will occasionally fly into a territory and challenge the other magpies that occupy it. Two birds will then engage in one on one combat while the other birds watch. Over 200 magpie “spectators” have been counted watching one of these competitions.

Clever birds

  • Some parrots can converse with humans, invent syntax, and teach other parrots what they know. Researchers have found that Alex, an African gray parrot, also understands important aspects of numbers, color concepts, the difference between presence and absence, and physical properties of objects like their shapes and materials. Not only can African gray parrots talk, the researchers who speak with them claim that they have a sense of humour and make up new words.
  • Pigeons can memorize up to 725 different visual patterns.
  • Clark nutcrackers can hide up to 30,000 seeds and remember where they are six months later.
  • Nutcrackers will also steal food, or hide food to prevent theft. If they see another bird watching them while they hide their food, they will return alone later to hide the food in a new spot. According to scientists, this shows that the birds understand that other birds have intentions and beliefs.
  • Magpies, at an earlier age than any other creature tested, can figure out that an object that disappears behind a curtain has not actually vanished.
  • Crows have proven themselves capable of innovative problem solving. In Japan, carrion crows will line up at the curb and wait for a traffic light to turn red. When cars stop, they hop onto the street, place walnuts from nearby trees on the road, and then hop back to the curb. Once cars have run over the nuts and broken the shells, the crows hop back out to eat the food.
  • An experiment by German ethnologist, Otto Koehler, showed that ravens could match the number of objects to dots on a lid for a food reward, proving that the birds can count.
  • Pigeons are capable of what appears to be deception. They will pretend to have found some food, lead other birds to it, and then sneak off to a real food source while the others are distracted.

Did you know?

  • Unlike humans, birds do not show any physical signs of aging. There’s no telltale graying of feathers or wrinkling of the skin. Once birds have grown to maturity and replaced their juvenile plumage with that of an adult, their appearance does not seem to change for the rest of their lives. There is only one peculiar exception, the captive male duck, which develops female features as it reaches old age. This has never been observed in the wild, probably because most ducks and geese are shot between the ages of one and three years by hunters.
  • Researchers find out how old birds are when they re-encounter birds that have been ringed (fitted with an identifying leg band).
  • Though some species face very high mortality rates in the wild, it has been found that many bird species are capable of living very long lives. Seabirds like albatrosses and fulmars are close runners-up, but the record goes to a sulphur-crested cockatoo that lived to be over 80 in the London Zoo.
  • Baby songbirds babble like human infants, using the left sides of their brains.
  • Ravens are the only birds that been seen unmistakably playing. Two of these fun-loving birds were photographed in Wales in 1980, sliding down a 10 ft. snow bank on their backs. They even came back to do it again the next day.


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