Birds do a lot of activities that may seem smart, but how much of their behavior is instinct instead of intelligence? Ornithologists are continually studying birds and learning new information about their brains, how they think, and why they behave the way they do.
Deciding just how smart birds are depends on how intelligence is defined. Birds exhibit a wide range of smart behaviors, including good memories, extensive communication, planning for the future, and remembering the past. Some birds can solve problems, and others have been observed playing: both activities that indicate more than just basic instinct. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines intelligence as "the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations or the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment."
Do birds do this? Some scientific studies indicate yes, without a doubt, birds do learn, and every backyard birder knows birds are capable of adapting to new environments and conditions. Quantitative measurement of bird intelligence is difficult, however, because birds cannot take intelligence tests or attend classes to be measured with their peers. Still, ongoing observations and studies are revealing that birds may be far more intelligent than initially believed.
Bird Brain Structure
Brain size and structure is not an automatic gauge of intelligence, but it can be a clue. Birds may be small, but they have proportionally large brains compared to their overall body and head sizes. In fact, birds' brains are similarly proportioned to primates, including apes, monkeys, and humans. Studies of brain anatomy also suggest that while the structure is different than that of mammals' brains, birds may have a higher degree of connectivity between the sections of their brains. This could indicate more intelligence and faster reasoning than previously believed.
Evidence of Bird Intelligence
The best indication of how smart birds are is direct observations of birds acting intelligently. Some observations have been made under scientifically controlled circumstances and through laboratory experiments. Other observations have come from birders who notice their favorite birds behaving in peculiar ways, ways that seem planned and premeditated. Both types of observations can be helpful in the debate about bird intelligence.
Examples of bird intelligence include:
- Carrion crows in Japan that place nuts in roadways, waiting for cars to crush the shells. The birds then retrieve the nut meats while coordinating around traffic lights to keep safe.
- Woodpecker finches in the Galapagos Islands that trim sticks and twigs to the proper length for use as tools to forage for insects.
- Green herons and other heron species that use bread fed to ducks, picnic leftovers, or even small leaves as bait to attract fish for their hunting.
- Blue tits in the 1920s that learned which color of milk caps on delivered milk had the most cream (whole milk) and pierced those caps to drink the cream.
- Woodhouse's scrub-jays that hold funerals for dead birds by making loud noises and avoiding the corpse, behavior that may be warning other birds of fatal threats.
- Northern mockingbirds that recognize individuals who may threaten their nests and attack only those individuals rather than attacking all passersby indiscriminately.
- Aplomado falcons that hunt cooperatively in pairs and thereby increase their hunting success by a large margin through this teamwork.
- Jays that hide hundreds of seeds and nuts in fall and manage to retrieve the majority of them over the course of the winter, exhibiting great recall for hiding places.
Other well known examples of bird intelligence that could be attributed to instinct but still show at least some higher mental capability include:
- Amazing nest architecture with intricate construction
- Returning to the same ranges, even the same nests, for many years
- Ability to navigate migration safely despite changing landmarks and hazards
- Play behaviors, including taunting cats or playing with objects for entertainment
- Recognizing who refills feeders and interacting with that person
- Curiosity when responding to pishing or investigating new stimuli
- Showing emotions through courtship, caring for nestlings, etc.
Some Are Smart, Some Are Stupid
Like any animal, not all birds are equally intelligent, and just as there are smart birds, there are also stupid birds. Ornithologists generally agree that corvids (jays, ravens, crows, rooks, jackdaws, etc.) and parrots are among the smartest bird species and that social, gregarious birds often exhibit more intelligent behavior than solitary species. Still, every backyard birder has seen that one "stupid" bird at their feeders who just can't figure anything out, while another bird of the same species seems to be an Einstein in comparison. Watching birds and witnessing their intelligent behavior can be a joy for birders, and learning more about bird intelligence is sure to keep ornithologists busy for decades to come.
Emery, Nathan J. Cognitive Ornithology: the Evolution of Avian Intelligence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 361, no. 1465, 2005, pp. 23–43., doi:10.1098/rstb.2005.1736
Ackerman, Jennifer. The Genius of Birds. Penguin Books, 2017
Ara, Kanami, et al. Nut-Dropping Behavior of Carrion Crows in Hakodate City, Hokkaido. Japanese Journal of Ornithology, vol. 67, no. 2, 2018, pp. 243–248., doi:10.3838/jjo.67.24