Intelligence is a loaded word because it has so many facets to it. We may call a physicist smart because of the knowledge they possess. However, we can also say the same about an auto mechanic who can figure out what’s wrong with a car just by listening to its engine. It gets tricky when we put animals to a similar test. After all, intelligence isn’t just a human quality. It can describe parrots, too.
The first thing we must do is set the bar for what we mean by intelligence. Scientists use three criteria to make logical assessments:
The other concept to understand is that there isn’t one path to intelligence. Just because a dog can’t drive a car doesn’t make it dumb. Animals learn, evolve, and adapt to do what they must in life to survive. Let’s think about what a parrot needs to know. It must meet its basic needs for food, water, and shelter. The fact that over 350 species exist tells us they’ve figured out these things, so we can consider them intelligent.
Standing Up to the Test
Science offers several examples that show that parrots are indeed intelligent. Bird owners would probably tell you the same thing. There’s a reason that there are locking doors on cages. Many species can mimic speech, which provides additional evidence of their cognitive abilities. According to the Guinness World Records, a Budgerigar named Puck had a 1,728-word vocabulary.
Cognitive psychologist Irene Pepperberg and her colleagues offer even more surprising evidence of parrot intelligence with an African Grey, Griffin. Her team used a four-cup test where a reward was hidden under one to explore the bird’s ability to learn and reason. Their results showed that Griffin performed better at the task than even 5-year-old children and apes!
Pepperberg also demonstrated even more remarkable abilities with her now-deceased African Grey, Alex. This parrot could count, name colors, and even distinguish between different traits, such as smaller vs. bigger. The sum of these abilities makes a strong case for parrot intelligence.
The next questions we must ask are these skills products of the lab, and how does avian brain structure play a role?
Intelligence in the Wild
Survival isn’t easy, especially if you’re not on the top of the food chain. Perhaps that’s one reason that parrot species form flocks. More eyes looking for something to eat—and predators. It also satisfies our third criterion in our gauge of intelligence. Other examples also exist that provide compelling evidence. Join us on a trip Down Under for an amazing wild example.
Sometimes, getting a meal isn’t pretty. A desperate animal has to resort to stealing from garbage cans. Just ask any homeowner who has had to deal with marauding raccoons. Of course, it helps if you have opposable thumbs. However, a large break works, too, i.e., if you’re a Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita).
Problem-solving skills come in handy if you’re hungry and want to search for something to eat in the trash. Hundreds of eyewitness reports attest to the cockatoo’s ability to open closed garbage cans. Even more impressive is that other birds observed this behavior and cashed in on the loot, too! It’s worth noting that the cockatoos used different techniques, depending on where they were.
The Avian Brain
Humans and birds don’t have the same close evolutionary relationship as we have with dogs and cats. Our last common ancestor lived 600 million years ago, unlike the 94 million years with our other pets. Nevertheless, the research suggests that parrots are on par with primates in terms of intelligence. These findings close the book on the answer. The next thing to consider is why that’s true.
Scientists have concluded that the parrot’s brain has a similar structure of primates. The parts involved between the two groups are different. However, the result is the same—greater cognitive ability and problem-solving skills. The distinct anatomies are not necessarily a throwback to our common ancestry with birds. Instead, it points to another solution.
The structures of the avian and primate brains are an example of convergent evolution. That’s where two different organisms evolve similar solutions to problems. The classic example is the wing. Birds, bats, and insects all have them, but they didn’t get them from shared ancestry. Intelligence became a crucial trait on several evolutionary paths. We got to the same place on a different journey.
Time has given parrots the tools and skills for survival. They have relatively large brains jam-packed with nerve cells in the areas that support intelligence. Birds are social and solve problems cooperatively. All these things have equipped parrots to be smart at being parrots.
Parrots are remarkable animals when you learn how intelligent they really are. They excel at problem-solving and can learn by observing. Their social structure also gives them an edge because it fosters cooperation. The next time someone calls you a bird brain, you may want to thank them. You’re in good company with this group of avian Einsteins.
Featured Image Credit: JillLang, Shutterstock