Bird brain, and proud of it!

If someone refers to you as being “bird brained”, it’s usually to cast aspersions on your mental faculties…and yet modern science suggests the glove is on the other foot when it comes to who is the brightest of them all. To have a “bird brain”, suggests one is stupid, dim, of low IQ, perhaps a bit ditzy and absentminded too, the opposite may be true.

When we look at the mental faculties of the birds, in particular the crows (corvids) and parrots, we see cognitive skills way beyond what we imagine. For an organism that lacks the neocortex of mammals such as ourselves and the other apes we cannot yet understand how these birds can be so bright.

For years (HT Dr Kiki), it has been hinted at that some birds, the above classes, in particular, have cognition on a par with rats and small monkeys. But, seemingly (thank you Mark Changizi for the link), birds are much brighter than monkeys they have intellectual skills that bring them right up to ape level. Moreover, given that the real difference between humans and chimpanzees is really culture rather than cognition, that means the birds are close to our own intellect in many ways. For instance, they have the capacity to:

  • Delay of gratification
  • Mental time travel
  • Reasoning
  • Cooperation
  • Mirror self-recognition
  • Third-party intervention
  • Problem solving
  • Counting
  • Tool use

There are many example and more. Indeed, Changizi is still reeling at the revelation: “Parrots and corvids are basically flying chimps,” he says in jocular mood, “There’s no better way to characterize their biology and ethology.”

Given that all birds descended from the theropod dinosaurs of which T rex was one (you thought they went extinct, didn’t you?), it’s worth remembering next time you accuse someone of being a bird brain that you never know who might be watching…