Someone Calling you Birdbrain? Don't be Offended. Intelligence Part 2.

in #steemstem3 years ago



The brain of an elephant weighs just over 5 kg. A parrot brain weighs in at around 24 grams. Can you guess which one performs better on tests of intelligence?

Since I asked the question I’m sure you can. Recent experimental evidence indicates that the intelligence of some parrots may be equal to primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas- outperforming the elephants. [1]

Ever since a childhood trip to the zoo where an Australian cockatoo told me to '$%% off,' I realized that parrots are a bit different from other birds. Still, it does seem a little unlikely that an animal with such a small brain could rival the intellect of an animal like a chimpanzee, which is only separated from us by a percentage or two of DNA.

Part 1: Amazing Alex

The majority of evidence for parrot intelligence comes from the intellectual achievements of an African grey parrot called Alex. Alex was trained from the age of one year by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg. You can see him in action in this YouTube video. Here are a few of Alex’s most significant intellectual achievements


Source:Creative Commons

Language Use

Many parrots have been trained to copy words or phrases, but there is abundant evidence that Alex understood at least some of what he was saying. He could identify 50 objects and knew seven colours and five shapes. He had functional use of phrases such as ‘wanna go back’ and ‘wanna banana [2] .' No one, including grey parrots, wants to be tested all day. During tests, Alex would often say ‘wanna go back’, indicating that he wanted to go back to his cage. He could also ask for specific foods and would sometimes throw them at the researcher if they bought something him something different.[3]

Other subsequent behaviour supported him understanding the meaning of what he was saying, for example he would continue to complain if not taken where he had asked, or sit quietly if the researcher followed his request. [2]

Mathematical Ability

I wouldn’t want to you to dismiss Alex as just an Arts student, he also had some mathematical ability, being able to count to 6, and correctly answer questions about quantity, for example 'How many triangles?'[3]

Abstract Thinking

Perhaps his most impressive achievement was his ability to understand abstract concepts. He could correctly answer questions about whether things were the ‘same' or ‘different’, and also understood relational concepts such as bigger or smaller.[4]
He is also the first animal ever on record to have asked a question. He was looking at himself in the mirror and said ‘what color?’ He learned the word ‘grey’ from the answer given by the researcher.[3]

These results have caused a lot of excitement, as it was previously thought only primates were capable of abstract thinking. These results appear to show an example of convergent evolution of intelligence. [1]Primates and parrots are separated by hundreds of millions of years from a common ancestor, yet both appear to have evolved higher cognitive functions such as planning and abstract thinking.

Some Skepticism



Conclusions about the cognitive abilities of parrots are a little shaky, considering much of it is based on one single subject. Following Peppersberg's early results, some researchers claimed this was an example of the clever Hahn’s effect. This effect is when an animal appears to be answering questions correctly, but is instead just responding to cues from the questioner. [5] This doesn’t seem to apply to Petersburg’s research however, as Alex was able to show similar levels of performance with different researchers. [3]

Recent research on different African Grey parrots supports the generalisation of Alex’s intellectual feats. These parrots have also been able to learn many words and respond to questions correctly, and a recent study supported the conclusion that parrots can understand the concepts of same and different. [3]

Part 2: How can you be intelligent with a brain the size of a walnut?

1. Neuron packing density

We have grown very familiar with the concept of packing a lot of information processing power into a very small area. Early computers from the 1940s and 50s weighed as much as 30 tons and at top speed could execute 5000 operations per second. An iPhone 6 is capable of 25 billion instructions per second!


Source:Creative Commons

Try Fitting this in Your Pocket

Early computers used vacuum tubes and wiring, while modern transistors are etched on silicon chips. Unlike the computer example, parrots and elephants are using the same basic materials to transfer information- neurons and synapses. However bird neurons are much smaller, and more densely packed, meaning that although bird brains are much smaller, the number of neurons is believed to be quite similar. In addition, the smaller spaces between the tightly packed neutrons aids in processing speed. [7] Further research is needed to give more accurate estimations of parrot neuron numbers.

Location location location

When it comes to intelligence, the location of neurons can be more important than the total number. In primates the neocortex is accepted to be the region of the brain largely responsible for intelligence, and we see it is greatly enlarged, especially in humans. Parrots do not even have a neocortex, but they do show a great enlargement in an area called the nidopallium, which is believed to have a similar function to the neocortex. [1] Interestingly, the nidopallium has a much different structure to the neocortex, showing that the layouts of the primate neocortex is not the only structure that can give rise to advanced levels of cognition.

The majority of studies on animal cognition has focused on primates. They are the animals most similar to us, and for many years were believed to be the only other animals besides humans capable of tool use and advanced planning. In recent years it has become clear that the much smaller brains of parrots rival primates in cognitive abilities. Further research on parrots can help us to understand the brain structures and organisation necessary for high intelligence, as parrots have followed a different evolutionary path than primates.

Maybe one day I can be sure whether or not that cockatoo at the zoo really understood what he was saying when he told me to f#[email protected] off.


  1. Roth G. 2015. Convergent evolution of complex brains and high intelligence. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 370, 20150049 (doi:10.1098/rstb.2015.0049) [PMC free article] [PubMed]

  2. Pepperberg, I. M. (1981). Functional vocalizations by an African Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus).Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 55,139–160.


  4. Pepperberg I.M. Acquisition of the same/different concept by an African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus): learning with respect to categories of color, shape and material. Anim. Learn. Behav. 1987a;15:423–432.


  6. Schloegl, C., Schmidt, J., Boeckle, M., Weiss, B. M., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Grey parrots use inferential reasoning based on acoustic cues alone. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279, 4135–4142.

  7. Dicke, U., & Roth, G. (2016). Neuronal factors determining high intelligence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1685), 20150180.


I thought all they did was repeat, I didn't know they were so smart. Thank you for sharing this information.

Yeah parrots are pretty amazing. We have one in New Zealand called a Kea, it is famous for harassing tourists. They can open zips and eat the rubber on your car!

The wobbly kea in Arthur's pass is a good place to watch cars get gobbled up by these little bastards! hahaha

Keas are my favourite NZ bird. Even if they do dig up my beers after I bury them in the snow

Same. But my love goes down ever so slightly when they untie your tent and allow it to blow away. But that never happens...

Great post. I'll add that Parrots aren't the only smart bird. Crows have been shown to count to 7 and some species display rudimentary tool use.

Yes, crows and other corvids were often mentioned alongside parrots in the studies as having impressive mental abilities. I chose to focus on parrots because there is more experimental data on them, and also to limit the scope of this article to keep the length under control. But I think you are right, I should have mentioned them

When I went to the bird park, one of the show was about a parrot which can solve simple mathematical equations (plus and minus). What do you think? Is it intelligence or because it has been trained?

If it was very simple, like 3-1, then they really can do it. It would be easier to cheat though! For example by winking at the bird twice if the answer should be two.

Dear @flyyingkiwi,
I think this is not related to the packing density of neurons in Alex's brain. perhaps this is due to a fewer neuronal connectivity in his brain. in agreement with that, a recent study published in nature communications has shown that individuals with higher IQ have a fewer connection between his/her brain neurons. And this is contrary to the previous studies that suggested that the larger brain size have higher intelligence.
.. by the way, Thank you for your great article.

Hi, if possible could you link to the nature communications article, I would like to read it.

The bigger brain= more intelligence rule works well within a taxonomic order. For example, humans have much bigger brains than other primates and are more intelligent. However when you’re comparing species from different orders the rule doesn’t work very well. The brain of a giraffe is almost twice the size of an orangutan brain, but the orangutan is thought to be much more intelligent.

Hi, Here is the link:
Erhan Genç
I hope it will be useful for you.

Thanks very much, I will read it

Very informative post. Did you ever get that bird back for telling you to F*** Off ...

I bet that was the last thing you expected while visiting a zoo.

Well it was a cockatoo so I wasn't too surprised. Have taken a lot of abuse from them over the years

Hahahah .....

Hello @flyyingkiwi, that was a very nice read.

It is amazing how size doesn't matter at all, even though elephants and birds utilize the same type of 'technology' (brain neurons and synapses). Very inteesting how the location of neurons is much more important than the total number.

Thanks for the information!

From the research that has been done, it seems that bird brains are actually more efficiently organized than ours, both in the way the neurons are packed in, and also in the overall structure. Maybe we are lucky they are a lot smaller:)

I guess we are lucky then. I just can't picture this planet being run by birds. However it might be better for the planet itself considering how much we've already destroyed the planet's natural environment.

I initially agreed with the skepticism that Alex's (the parrot) intellectual responses were influenced by the clever Hahn’s effect, but the points you laid out convinced me otherwise.

A great post!

Parrots have a reputation of being good at imitation, so it’s easy to assume that’s all they can do. I was surprised myself doing the research for this article.

That's incredible. Again, great post!

Nice work. Very informative. I've really learned a lot about parrots. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks for reading!

Actually when it comes to intellect in the bird kingdom, the highest distinction belongs to crows (no offense to the parakeets that have shown formidable intelligence too). But the cognitive capability of crows is vastly superieor to most other birds and even many mammals.

There are plent of examples and experiments documented for this. For example crows in Japan using traffic to put walnuts out to crack and then collecting them when cracked

Crows even understand the principle of water displacement

(remember the Aesop tale we now know a crow can actually do that)

So how do they do it with the tiny brain - your article is englightening in that aspect - has to be neuron density..

Crows may not be much to look at, but ho boy, do they rock! :)

I should have mentioned corvids, I didn't in the interests of limiting the scope of the article. In the research I read, they were believed to be equal to parrots, with the caveat that more research needs to be done. Where are you getting your information from?

I came across a few articles from and scientificamerican a while back on the topic of the intellect of the corvids :) Remember reading that the corvid family of birds and the family of parrots were easily identified as the most intelligent birds we know in a few other online articles also...

Smart, and they also have a lot of personality. Like a naughty two year old

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