The Frontal Cortex

Birds Are Smart

I’ve got an article in yesterday’s Boston Globe on the acute intelligence of birds, which is a by-product of their sociality:

There is a growing scientific recognition of the genius of birds. Scientists are now studying various birds to explore everything from spatial memory to the grammatical structure of human language. This research is helping to reveal the secrets of the human brain. But it is also overturning the conventional evolutionary story of intelligence, in which all paths lead to the creation of the human cortex. The tree of life, scientists are discovering, has numerous branches of brilliance.

“It used to be that people would only talk about intelligence in terms of primates,” says Nicola Clayton, a professor of comparative psychology at the University of Cambridge. “But now I think that birds have achieved a sort of honorary ape status, just with a few feathers attached.”

The intelligence of birds, which sit far from man on the evolutionary tree, has also forced a reappraisal of where intelligence comes from. Scientists once assumed that intelligence evolved out of physical need – animals got smart in order to exploit natural resources. But the brainpower of birds suggests that intelligence is actually a byproduct of complex social interactions. Living in a group requires an animal to juggle lots of information about its peers. So it’s not a coincidence that the smartest creatures are also the most social.

I think birds are providing strong evidence for the “intelligence is driven by complex animal societies” hypothesis, which was first advocated by Nick Humphrey in the early 1970’s.

And here is a picture of me and June, my African Grey, as she pleads for a little head rub:

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  1. #1 6EQUJ5
    September 17, 2007

    It may be that the main reason birds are so smart is that cats are wild about them.

  2. #2 G. Williams
    September 17, 2007

    So much for birdbrains, eh? (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.)

    That is a really cute picture, by the way.

  3. #3 Daniel
    September 19, 2007

    What about flight and navigation? We surface creatures have only 2 dimensions to deal with; climbing up a hill or jumping off a rock, don’t really count. Birds must navigate vast distances in 3-D. Maybe they need extra intelligence for that.

    As an after-thought, fish live in 3-D too. Oh well, this is just my thought, that I have already poked a hole in.

  4. #4 Chris
    September 21, 2007

    Jonah, I liked the article, but I have a quick question. When you refer to starling grammar, are you referring to last year’s recursion article in Nature? ‘Cause that study has pretty much been discredited.

  5. #5 Flu-Bird
    June 4, 2009

    Somes birds can be tuagh to count and ive heard that some can even learn to get a berry in a string by pulling up in the string and holding it down with their foot and as we know PARROTS can realy be smart

  6. #6 Richard Smedley
    November 6, 2010

    Here’s a video of my pet starling Chur using an aluminum foil ball as a tool. He’s only 6 months old and is proving to be very intelligent.

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