Some birds, especially parrots, songbirds, and the entire family of crows, are surprisingly intelligent – and not just when compared to other birds like emus or pigeons.
Compared to non-human primates like chimpanzees, these birds have twice as many neurons in every gram of brain!
So what’s the story behind the brains of these intelligent birds?
Most birds fly, so they evolved to be as light as possible. They are optimized for light weight by having hollow bones, light but strong and stiff feathers, and – yes – tiny bird brains.
There are approximately 8,500 different species of birds alive. About 4,000 of these species are songbirds. With their rich and varied song, they can let their neighbors know they are nearby, make a claim on real estate, and try to get a mate.
There are two different types of songbirds.
One guy always sings the same song. The Australian zebra finch belongs to this group. Like people learning languages, these finches must learn to sing at a critical time. If the baby zebra finch never hears the song of the adult zebra features until they are sexually mature, they will just have a very simple and plain song – and they will likely have a lousy sex life too.
The other class of songbirds, which includes the canary, is very different. These birds change their song from year to year. As the next breeding season approaches, up to 20,000 new brain cells will grow every day. The slightly different song is more attractive and you will likely be more successful in attracting a partner.
But just a few months after the end of the breeding season, the canary will forget this year’s song. The part of the brain that controls its voice box will shrink to half its normal size.
Does it feel that it doesn’t have to be that sexually attractive anymore? Well, that’s a rhetorical question, of course!
But bird intelligence isn’t just about having an impressive collection of songs.
Smarter birds can plan for future needs, make and use tools, and solve problems by showing insight. You can even draw inferences about causal mechanisms and find out that one thing is causing the other.
They can use their own personal experiences to anticipate the possible future behavior of their conspecifics. And they can learn what words mean – parrots can speak words and use them to communicate with people.
Some birds can even spot themselves in the mirror, which suggests they have awareness and self-awareness.
A crow was seen cracking nuts by placing them on a pedestrian crossing. Then it waited for cars to crack open the shell, waited a little longer for the light to turn red and the cars to stop, and only then did it jump back to get its food.
Crows could imitate the cunning crow in Aesop’s fables by throwing stones into a container of water to bring the floating food up to their beak.
A group of crows in England took turns lifting the lids of the garbage cans so that their fellow crows could successfully forage for food.
All of these intelligences are due to the evolutionary process.
First, they have twice as many neurons as primate brains of the same mass. And these brain cells are small and tightly packed.
Second, they have their neurons concentrated in the parts of the brain that are associated with the specific intelligence they need. We primates aren’t quite as efficient.
Third, like humans, the chicks of these birds spend a relatively long time growing up with their parents and learning the skills from them. This further increases their intelligence.
After all, communication between different parts of the brain is very fast because their brains are so small.
Pretty clever, huh? Makes you think – the term “bird brain” should be a compliment, not an insult.