As bird lovers, we are often fascinated by the habits of incredibly smart birds — like crows, ravens, magpies, and parrots.
But how often do we think about the ones that often get called “dumb birds”? Unintelligent birds are all around us, and their behavior can be just as fascinating and entertaining to watch!
Let’s break down the bird brains that have the worst reputation for un-smart decisions and behaviors. And then, let’s look at one of the birds with the worst reputation for a lack of sound cognitive abilities: the Dodo bird.
The kākāpō tops many lists of unintelligent birds, thanks to its unusual — and not terribly bright — behaviors.
It is a flightless, nocturnal member of the parrot family that is native to New Zealand. Some of the challenges that Kākāpōs face include:
- The berries that they eat as a major part of their diet only grow once every four years
- They freeze in the presence of a predator, rather than trying to fly away or fight back
- The male’s mating call is so loud and confusing that the sound confuses females and makes them run away
The Kākāpō Recovery program has documented that there are only 248 living specimens left in the world. Although their reputation is mostly based on their strange behaviors, there are a few cool things about them, too.
They are the heaviest parrots in the world, with females weighing in at more than 3 pounds and males weighing about 4.5 pounds. They also live an incredibly long time, maybe even longer than any other bird species. They are believed to reach about 90 years of age!
Killdeers are sometimes described as unintelligent because they are such easy prey for many predators.
They build their nests on the ground, making their babies vulnerable to countless predators, including snakes, foxes, domestic dogs and cats, raccoons, opossums, ravens, crows, birds of prey, and coyotes.
They also don’t flee when under attack; instead, they stay put and bob up and down.
However, Killdeers do have a really cool trait that makes me feel like they really shouldn’t be on any list of stupid animals. They will protect their hatchlings by running toward predators, shrieking, and pretending to have a broken wing.
When the predator turns its attention on the adult Killdeer, the bird flies away to the nest, ready to protect the babies or eggs.
This alone should give them credit for being intelligent creatures!
The Cardinal earns a spot on this list because of its bad habit of flying directly into glass windows and sliding glass doors. This isn’t just an issue of inattentiveness, like other birds who don’t notice glass and smash into windows.
Male Cardinals will see their reflection in a pane of glass and believe it is a rival — and go on the attack. Robins and Mockingbirds will sometimes do the same thing.
Unfortunately, they’re not really a “learn their lesson” type. Instead, they will repeat this behavior multiple times without realizing the problem.
I have to admit, this behavior seems pretty foolish.
Are emus unintelligent, or do they just have a spacey look on their faces?
In a study of bird intelligence and innovative behavior, biology professor Louis Lefebvre from McGill University ranked the emu as one of the world’s less intelligent birds. However, Kaye Primmer, who used to breed emus, suggests that even though emus are not as smart as crows, they are still much smarter than other birds, like turkeys.
The thing that gives them a bad reputation is the fact that they will perceive you as being bigger than them if you hold a stick in the air, above your head. Getting attacked by an emu could be pretty scary, as they are so huge, but knowing that you can probably just hold a stick in the air and scare them off because suddenly they think YOU are bigger? That’s pretty great.
Emus are large, flightless birds who use their big wings to cool down and circulate air around their bodies. They are also incredibly fast runners.
Turkeys are easily confused. They are among the many kinds of birds with monocular vision, meaning their eyes are on the sides of their head. This gives them a very different view from each eye, and it often leads them to cock their heads to one side while they look around. This makes them look even more confused!
It’s a myth that turkeys will drown in the rain because they stare at the sky. However, turkeys can inherit a condition called Tetanic Torticollar Spasms, which can cause them to stare at the sky for up to a minute at a time.
Tom Savage is the researcher who identified this disorder in the 90s, and he says that it gives turkeys a bad reputation. However, he did say that domestic turkeys also get the reputation of being unintelligent because domestic turkeys will sometimes try to fly, even though they are flightless birds (wild turkeys can get some air, but they are sleeker).
Did the Dodo Die Out Because It Wasn’t Smart Enough to Survive?
If someone called you a “dodo bird,” or a “dodo,” you would know that they were throwing a childish insult your way. Whether they’re calling you unintelligent or just unusual, it’s definitely an insult.
But did the Dodo deserve to be insulted?
All About the Dodo
What we know about Dodos comes from a handful of preserved specimens and notes recorded by European colonizers and explorers in the 1500s-1600s.
They may have originally been able to fly, but they eventually became flightless because they had no natural predators on Mauritius, the island in the Indian Ocean where they lived. Evolution shortened their tails, atrophied their wings, and made them heavier.
They were about 3 feet tall and weighed about 22 pounds. That’s more than 4 times the size of the average chicken.
Their very large, long bill was hook-shaped, which may mean that they used it to crack open coconuts. They had chicken-like feet.
After colonists captured a number of Dodo birds, they adapted quickly to captivity and were considered quite easygoing. They were slow and ate a lot.
The Dodo’s Extinction
As colonizers arrived on Mauritius and Reunion, the two islands where Dodos lived, they hunted these large birds for meat. Remember, they had no evolutionary instinct to flee predators because nothing had preyed on them for countless generations.
Humans weren’t their only new predators. Dodos were also regularly killed by the settlers’ dogs, pigs, and other animals. Plus, they were introduced to new diseases, and their nests and chicks were easy pickings for a variety of new predators.
Habitat destruction also played a huge role. In other words, Dodos died out because of the actions of humanity.
By 1662, Dodos were completely extinct.
It seems that calling Dodos unintelligent is unfair, and using Dodo as an insult for “dumb” is just silly. Dodos didn’t go extinct because of a low IQ. It was because they had adapted perfectly to their environment, and when humans changed their environment very suddenly, they had no opportunity to adapt again.
As it turns out, most “dumb” behaviors of birds are not that at all! They are simply adaptations unique to their own needs!