Bird Intelligence

Bird Intelligence

The conclusion that birds are, well, bird-brained, was reached because birds lack a cerebral cortex, the area of the human brain that is responsible for higher thinking. It was presumed that meant they were incapable of complex cognitive abilities. Researchers now know, however, that a different part of the bird brain (the pallium) has evolved to perform many of the same functions.

Nathan Emery’s book Bird-Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, presents an ocean of evidence that several bird species – largely corvids, a family that includes ravens, crows, jays and magpies – should be considered more as “feathered apes” when it comes to intelligence. Jennifer Ackerman observes in her book, The Genius of Birds, that birds have several mental skills that equate to those of primates, including making tools, solving problems, seeing themselves in a mirror and planning ahead.

The Crow Box (pictured above) is a training aid to teach crows to collect coins in return for peanuts, or simply test the intelligence of wild corvids. The box is similar to a vending machine for birds, but crows have to use their brains to earn treats. Research using the device has shown that crows have a reasoning ability rivalling that of a human seven-year-old, and the birds can solve tasks previously only thought solvable by people and apes. 

Then there’s the video of a Russian crow using a jar lid as a toboggan. He totes it up to the peak of the roof and slides down on his jury-rigged sled, over and over, seemingly for the sheer entertainment value.

Corvids aren’t the only intelligent birds. Here’s a sampling of intelligent behaviour from other types of birds:

• Green Herons fish with bait: they will drop an insect in the water and wait for a fish to surface.

• Merlin pairs team up to hunt large flocks of waxwings: one Merlin flushes the flock by attacking from below; the other comes in moments later to take advantage of the confusion.

• Chickadees and nuthatches work together to drive away predators. They also use group intelligence to survive winters – some specialize in detecting danger, others in finding food. The flock benefits from the specializing.

• The Woodpecker Finch (Galapagos Islands) uses twigs to pry insects out of bark.

• African Honeyguides direct humans to bees’ nests, and when the people climb the trees and crack open the nests, the birds scavenge the leftovers.

• Pigeons can learn to distinguish a painting by Picasso from one by Monet.

• When army ants march, kicking up large numbers of insects, the Ruddy Woodpecker and several other species alert each other to the feast.

And we haven’t even touched on migration. How does a tiny bird that weighs 10 grams can make cyclic flights of thousands of kilometers, stopping at the same places, returning to the same locations, year after year, with its own navigation system that never runs out of batteries or needs a wifi connection? Birds are thought to use a combination of strategies to navigate their long migration journeys, combining two or more of scent, awareness of the earth’s magnetic field, solar or stellar navigation, polarized light patterns at sunset, and natural landmarks. Meanwhile, people lose their cars in parking lots. So much for our superior intelligence!

If you’re interested in learning more about bird intelligence, we recommend:

Nathan Emery, Bird-Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Jennifer Ackerman, The Genius of Birds


Crow Box

Green Herons


Chickadees and Nuthatches

African Honeyguides


Ruddy Woodpecker

Migration Navigation