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I like the smart birds the best.|
The smartest can even use tools to solve problems.
By Amelia Stymacks
PUBLISHED March 15, 2018
Their brains may be tiny, but birds have been known to outsmart children and apes.
Until the 21st century, birds were largely dismissed as simpletons. How smart can you be with a brain the size of a nut?
And yet the more we study bird intelligence, the more those assumptions are breaking down. Studies have shown, for instance, that crows make tools, ravens solve puzzles, and parrots boast a diverse vocabulary.
Birds make good use of the allotted space for their tiny brains by packing in lots of neurons—more so than mammals, in fact.
But what actually qualifies a bird as smart? The definition should be broader than it is, scientists say.
“Being able to fly to Argentina, come back, and land in the same bush—we don’t value that intelligence in a lot of other organisms,” says Kevin McGowan, an expert on crows at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. “We’ve restricted the playing field to things we think only we can do.”
But if we’re talking about standard intelligence—ie. mimicking human speech or solving problems—“it always comes down to parrots and corvids,” McGowan says.
Members of the corvid family (songbirds including ravens, crows, jays, and magpies, to name a few) are among the most intelligent birds, though common ravens may have the edge on tackling tough problems, according to McGowan.
A study published in 2017 in the journal Science revealed that ravens even pre-plan tasks—a behavior long believed unique to humans and their relatives. (Related: “We Knew Ravens Are Smart. But Not This Smart.”)
In the simple experiment, scientists taught the birds how a tool can help them access a piece of food. When offered a selection of objects almost 24 hours later, the ravens selected that specific tool again—and performed the task to get their treat.
“Monkeys have not been able to solve tasks like this,” Mathias Osvath, a researcher at Sweden's Lund University, said in a previous interview.
While crows do nearly as well as ravens solving intelligence tests, McGowan stresses that crows have an uncanny memory for human faces—and can remember if that particular person is a threat.
“They seem to have a good sense that every person is different and that they need to approach them differently.”