Bird Intelligence Facts

Surprising Facts About Bird Intelligence and Cognition

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If you said to most people that some birds are as intelligent as primates and dolphins, they might have trouble believing you. Yet lab studies and well-documented field observations have shown that birds have the ability to perform most of the complex behaviors that highly evolved mammals are famous for.

By using tools, mimicking speech, and exhibiting complex social behavior, birds are challenging everything we thought we knew about them. I’ll wager any reader not to have their jaw hit the floor by the end of this post!

Feats of Memory

An important aspect of animal intelligence is memory. While we might imagine that birds have a feeble memory capacity compared to other animals, some species of birds would outdo even the most highly-powered human brain in a memory test!


Nuthatch feeding in the woods
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

One of the most extraordinary demonstrations of bird memory in the wild is a behavior known as caching. To survive long periods where food supplies are scarce, several types of birds including crows and woodpeckers hide or ‘cache’ their food supplies in places where their competitors are unlikely to find them.

Jay species from around the world are renowned for burying acorns in the ground in this way. Whether they intend to leave some behind or not, the acorns remaining in the ground often sprout into more oak trees, which then provide food for further generations. Now that’s a long-term strategy that humans could learn from!

Clark’s nutcracker, a cousin of the jay, has been observed hiding seeds in over 3000 different locations! Memorizing these hiding holes up to 9 months later must require some serious brain power – a feat that humans would find hard to match.

Memorizing People and Places

In 2012, Boeckle & Bugnyar proved that ravens could remember objects for up to 3 years, but there are few, if any scientific studies that reach beyond that time frame.

It’s highly likely, however, that long-term memory in birds exceeds this severalfold. Search the internet, and you will find endless, highly convincing stories of pet birds remembering their owners decades after separation.

beard man with green Quaker
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

Some parrots can live for up to 90 years and are perhaps the kings of memory in the bird world. Scientific studies have shown that parts of their avian brains function in similar ways to a human cortex and that they likely navigate through their rainforest terrain by memory in the wild.

In lab tests, the gray parrot has even been shown to outperform young children in their working memory capacity. They can also count, and label objects of seven colors and five shapes!

Using Tools

It’s hard to imagine that until recently, humans believed they were the only species to use tools!

It wasn’t until 1960 when Jane Goodall documented chimpanzees using sticks to extract termites from a mound that we began to admit that using tools doesn’t define us. Since then, hundreds of species of animals have been observed using tools, including many birds.

One of the most famous examples of a bird using tools is the woodpecker finch of the Galapagos Islands. Using cactus spines and sharp twigs, the cunning songbird extracts invertebrates from cavities in trees. It has even been recorded modifying its tools to make them better suited for the task!

Another crafty use of a tool by a bird is in baiting prey. Various species of heron including the green heron, striated heron, and night heron have been observed using baits such as insects and bread to lure in fish close to the water’s edge. When the fish arrives, the bird strikes and takes a prize much greater than the morsel used to coax it!

Crows are some of the only animals in the entire world that have been recorded using tools exclusively for having fun. While different types of crow are often seen playing in the snow, seeing one using a tool to snowboard down a roof is enough to make you wonder what else their ‘bird brains’ are capable of!

Social Behavior

African penguins walk out of ocean
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘March of the Penguins’ you may wonder how on earth parent Emperor penguins find their chick among colonies of tens of thousands of birds. The answer is their voice. By using two frequency bands simultaneously, each parent makes a unique call that the chicks distinguish before they come running.

Some types of social behavior in birds are so advanced it even defies scientific understanding. European starlings may not be America’s most popular bird, but few would deny that their mighty flocks of up to a million are a marvel to behold. The way the birds twist and turn in perfect synchrony is something ornithologists are still trying to figure out.

Another aspect of intelligence is artistry. While many people wouldn’t consider animals capable of creating works of art, I’d challenge you to deny the artistic eye of the male Vogelkop bowerbird, a bird that spends years sculpting what can only be described as a rainforest art installation to lure in females.

The enormous structure of sticks and moss is adorned with decor unique to each bird. While some males prefer to win the female’s charms with brightly-colored flowers and berries, others choose the darker shades of animal dung and charcoal. The lengths to which each male perfects his masterpiece have to be seen to be believed.

Mimicking Sounds and Speech

Everybody knows that parrots are masters of mimicking sounds and speech, but many other birds have evolved this capacity, too.

Immature Blue Jay Singing in Tree
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

Mockingbirds, thrashers, catbirds, blue jays, and European starlings are all accomplished at imitating the sounds of other birds, and even household appliances such as telephones and microwaves.

I was amazed, however, to discover just how well ravens can mimic human voices. A couple of years ago, I discovered this video of ‘Mischief’ the white-necked raven that changed how I see crows forever.

Even the vocal maneuvers of Mischief, however, pale in comparison with the most extraordinary mimic of the entire bird world: The lyrebird. If this video hadn’t been posted from such a trustworthy source, I would have never believed it possible. Be sure to watch to the end to see the lyrebird impersonating a chainsaw felling trees. Phenomenal!

Adapting to Human Environments

hooded crow with nut in his beak
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

It may be argued that even complex behavior in birds is simply a result of millions of years of evolution and instinct rather than creative intelligence. But the way that some species have adapted to human environments suggests otherwise.

In both the United States and Japan, crow species have learned to drop nuts with hard shells onto roads so that cars will run them over and crush them. In some instances, they’ve even been observed dropping walnuts onto crosswalks so that they can collect the kernel once the traffic has come to a halt!

Crows are also known for opening trash cans for food, but they’re not the only ones! In recent years, cockatoos in Australia have learned to open garbage cans. The remarkable thing about this phenomenon is how quickly the birds have taught one another this behavior, with different techniques being used in different localities.

Lastly, let’s not forget that the multitude of bird species visiting our backyard feeders, using bird baths and nest boxes are also adapting to an environment that we’ve created for them. If it wasn’t for this intelligent capacity of birds to adapt to their environment, they would have fared even worse in our fast-changing modern world.

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