IDIOT’S GUIDES: SCIENCE MYSTERIES EXPLAINED
Are some birds as smart as primates?
Parrots can talk, ravens can recognize faces … have we been underestimating bird intelli-
gence for years?
Birds are very intelligent—much smarter than we give them credit for, because their brains are quite dier-
ent from ours. And they have a bunch of other physical advantages over us, too ….
Biologists have been paying a lot of attention to
birds in recent decades. In the early days of serious
science, birds were written o as not particularly
intelligent animals, living mostly by instinct. But
more recent studies suggest they may not lag as far
behind us as we thought.
Scientists specializing in brains have always
assumed, probably correctly, that the human brain
is the most advanced thinking organ ever produced
by nature. And a prominent feature of the human
brain is its wrinkles: we have very wrinkled brains.
Compared to other mammals, our brains are the
most wrinkled. And as a general rule, the less
wrinkled a mammalian brain, the less intelligent
Birds have much smoother brains than
mammals. So, naturally, scientists thought birds
must therefore be pretty stupid. Unfortunately,
there was quite a bit of evidence that pointed to
this being wrong: birds make elaborate nests,
can navigate thousands of miles, sing intricate
songs, collect very speciﬁc objects with their
beaks, and learn to speak human languages.
There are even unproven rumors of hawks that
can use ﬁre—grabbing burning sticks and drop-
ping them on grasslands to start ﬁres and ﬂush
out prey animals.
Long-running studies of African Grey par-
rots have shown these birds are capable of not
only learning hundreds of words, but actually
A famous subject of the experiments, a
parrot named Alex, could identify objects
based on their color or what matter they were
made of. He could identify something as “blue”
or “wood.” He could count objects on a tray.
Amazingly, he could even “count to zero” and
realize when there were no objects of a speciﬁc
Anyone who has had a large parrot as a pet can attest
to their intelligence and sensitivity. The birds react
with incredible empathy to the mood of their human
ﬂock-members and will get depressed or pine for absent
or dead family.
It seems, then, that despite their smooth brains, birds
can be as intelligent as many species of monkey and may-
be even some species of great ape.
Birds are amazing creatures with unique adaptations
that make them superior to mammals in some respects.
The big one is obvious: they can ﬂy. It’s an astonishing
adaptation that has radically changed their bodies. In
exchange for giving up use of their forelimbs for manipu-
lating the world around them, birds can instead leap into
the air in what might be nature’s ultimate expression of
Birds run a hotter blood temperature than mammals—
it’s like they have a permanent fever of 104° to 108°F. This
is because they have a faster metabolism and the chemical
reactions that go on inside their tissues need a higher
temperature to operate.
Birds have unique lungs with openings at both ends
(instead of just a single opening, like ours). Air ﬂows
through a bird’s lungs in one direction, which means they
can constantly extract oxygen and don’t have to spend half
their time breathing out. A complex system of air sacs al-
lows their lungs to work like this while the bird itself still
pants like a mammal.
Their hearts can pump between 400 and 1,000 times
a minute, and they take as many as 450 breaths a minute.
Compare that to our heart rate of 160 at a sprint and
breathing speed of 30 breaths per minute!
Think about this the next time you catch a crow look-
ing at you with an appraising eye. He’s probably thinking