Optics Mag is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Read more.

Are Birds Smart? Here’s What Science Tells Us

Last Updated on

Parrot riding on a scooter

While “bird-brained” is an insult in the English language, when you take a look at what science tells us about the actual intelligence of birds, it doesn’t really seem valid. In fact, birds seem to be just as smart as some of the world’s smartest animals, like monkeys and dolphins.

But how do we know how smart birds are? We decided to take a deep dive into the science to find out.

eagle divider

Signs of Avian Intelligence

The American Association for the Advancement of Science highlights the fact that scientists have found birds making tools, understanding abstract concepts, and even recognizing different paintings!

The Scientific American highlights that ravens can identify themselves in a mirror, and crows even let humans do their dirty work of nut-cracking by leaving them on a crosswalk.

multicolor parrot inside a cage

Image Credit: Johannes Giez, Unsplash

How Does a Bird’s Brain Work?

Most birds’ brains are about the size of a peanut, so how can they be so intelligent? The inner workings of any brain are complicated, and just because a brain is small doesn’t mean it’s simpler.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science highlights a few papers that discovered an arrangement of microcircuits in a bird’s brain that work just like a mammal’s neocortex. This means that birds’ brains might be more similar to ours than we first thought.

It’s not that they look alike, according to John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, but the inner workings “are actually wired in very complementary ways” to that of a mammal brain.

Martin Stacho, a neuroanatomist at Ruhr-University Bochum, states that while bird brains and mammal brains evolved differently, they still possess similar perceptual and cognitive abilities.

So, when you’re trying to envision the world through the eyes of a bird, perhaps it’s not far different than how you would view it if you were soaring 200 feet in the air.

What Are the Smartest Birds?

While parrots often get the nod as the world’s smartest birds, National Geographic points us in a completely different direction: the raven and the crow. While it might sound like the title to an Edgar Allen Poe poem, these two bird species have shown that they can outsmart tons of species.

Ravens in particular have shown the ability to remember how to use a tool and to preplan their actions in the future. Mathias Osvath, a researcher at Sweden’s Lund University, states that even monkeys haven’t been able to solve similar tasks!

That means in some categories at least, ravens have the edge over monkeys when it comes to intelligence.

Crows seem to possess a similar processing capability to ravens, but they can also remember people’s faces. If you’ve thrown a rock at a crow before or shooed them off, chances are that they logged that interaction into their memory bank.

We take for granted the ability to differentiate between ourselves, but imagine trying to tell the difference between ravens! That’s precisely what they’re doing when they learn to pick you out from your peers.

crow standing on tree trunk

Image Credit: Mabel Amber, Pixabay

What Is the Dumbest Bird?

Birds might not be as dumb as we thought, but that doesn’t mean every bird is super intelligent, right? According to Louis Lefebvre, a biologist at McGill University, the title of “birdbrain” belongs to the emu.

In an article for Smithsonian Magazine, he states that he firmly believes that emus are the least intelligent bird. He even relates a story where one person claims that if you lay down by an emu and put one foot in the air, they’ll come to investigate, thinking that you’re an emu.

Of course, they also might just be coming to check out what the stupid human is doing lying on their back putting their foot in the air. Maybe they think of us as “human-brained”?

Final Thoughts

You’re still likely to hear someone say that someone else is bird-brained. But now you know that they are really saying that the person is as smart as a dolphin (or not)!

Still, there’s no reason to insult birds when so many studies out there highlight how intelligent our feathered friends actually are!


Featured Image Credit: NET_Photog, Shutterstock

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.

Robert Sparks Profile Picture