Bird Fact Friday: The Evolution of Avian Intelligence

Adapted from pages 14-15 of Bird Brain:

Despite there being almost 10,000 species of birds, only a few have yet to be studied for their cognitive abilities. Some, based on their lifestyles and relative brain size, such as this woodpecker (left), hornbill, and falcon (right), are likely to also demonstrate smart behavior in intelligence tests.

The species lived in splendid isolation on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean until contact with European sailors in the seventeenth century led to its extinction in just a few decades. Although the relatives of dodos (pigeons and doves) are not thought of as the smartest of birds, can we put the dodo’s demise down to its own stupidity? Certainly, having no natural predators and not having had much contact with humans before the seventeenth century, they had little or no reason to fear us. If dodos had had the capacity for rapid learning, perhaps they might have adapted quickly and learned to escape their human hunters, but they were up against the most efficient and effective killer the planet has ever seen. Given the dodo’s clumsy body design—large and flightless—and that it had nowhere to run, it’s clear that dodos were in the wrong place at the wrong time, though being stupid didn’t help! 

More than 50 percent of birds are members of the songbird family or passerines. In fact, most of the birds we encounter every day in our gardens and parks are passerines, including sparrows, thrushes, finches, titmice, robins, blackbirds, and crows. Although not all members of this family are melodious singers, as anyone who has experienced the loud cawing of a crow will testify, all learn vocalizations specific to their species and, indeed, have evolved a special brain circuit to do so. This ability, rare in the animal kingdom, shares properties with human language which will be examined in Chapter 3.

Although birds have been studied with respect to the structure and function of their brains, their learning, and cognition for over a century, very little is known about the cognitive abilities of more than a tiny proportion of species. Most species are not kept in laboratories and thus are unavailable for experimental study, so our best ideas about their intelligence are only guesses based on their relative brain size (in comparison to their body size; see Chapter 1), their diet, social system, habitat, and life history (how long the species lives and how long the young take to develop to independence). These clues help build a picture of what these species may need their brains for—finding food, relating to others, building a home—but without being able to run experiments the picture can only be a sketch. Nonetheless, this technique is still useful for making predictions as to how intelligence may have evolved, specifically in those species we would expect to be the intellectual heavyweights. Three groups of birds— woodpeckers, hornbills, and falcons—possess some or all of the traits displayed by species known to be smart (The Clever Club; Chapter 1) but have yet to be tested. All three groups are outside the passerines but are closely related, so any cognitive skills they may have are likely to have evolved independently (that is, not from a common ancestor).

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Bird Fact Friday: New Thinking on the Avian BrainBird Fact Friday: What is intelligence? >>