Why are Parrots so clever? Dot Schwarz reveals how a Parrot’s brain works and what makes them so clever.
Have you ever wondered how a Parrot with a walnut-sized brain can outperform a monkey with a brain the size of a lemon? I know that I have.
Recent research has given scientific backing to my long-held belief that the intelligence of some birds is on a par with that of the most intelligent mammals.
Until recently it was thought that avian brains were simply wired in a completely different way to primate brains. But studies have shown that avian brains are structured quite similarly to mammalian brains, with one significant difference.
“Dr Nathan Emery author of Bird Brainbacked up by a research paper published in June 2015 written by a group of researchers working independently in different universities, discovered that avian brains contain more neurons per square centimetre than mammalian brains.
He uses this analogy of cakes to explain the difference.
[ ….]the mammalian cake cortex resembles a sponge cake with six layers, whereas the avian pallium resembles a fruitcake with no real layers, only clumps of fruit (nuclei) found throughout the cake (brain). The same ingredients have gone into making the cakes (eggs flour, fruit, sugar and butter equal neurons, glial cells and so on). But different recipes and baking (evolution) led to radically different results. (page 30)
Although the researchers expected to find neurons more densely packed in avian brains, the extent surprised the researchers. Susan Herculana-Houzel, a Brazilian neuroscientist commented: “We didn’t have any idea that the difference would be so extreme, that in a Parrot brain you would have as many neurons as in a mid-size primate.”
When I was a student (admittedly that is a long time ago) it was considered birds lacking a neo-cortex would be unable to perform cognitive tasks. Bird-brain was a pejorative term and Parroting someone’s words meant repetition without comprehension.
Research since the early 90s has shown that the avian brain has more scope for cognition than was formerly thought.. The forebrain in the Parrot derives from the pallium, which also produced the mammals neocortex.
This makes the avian brain more structurally similar to that of mammals then was previously thought. The main difference is birds’ brains are more densely packed with neurons which allows for a smaller brain. The bird brain was the equivalent of the invention of the silicon chip in the computer industry. Smaller but much more efficient. Birds, generally accepted to have descended from dinosaurs, may have evolved smaller brains to cut down on body weight when flying.
I confess to feeling some regret that to demonstrate how birds pack neurons into their brains, the researchers used the brains almost 100 birds of various species – healthy Parrots euthanized for the research.
Vocal learning has evolved to enable members of a flock, colony, herd or pod to pass on information necessary for group success and survival. Not all vocal learners display vocal mimicry. Species that can imitate other species include corvids and Parrots, most well known being the African Grey (Psittacus erithacus).
Some songbirds such as mockingbirds, reed warblers, and members of the starling family, most notably the Greater Hill Mynah (Gracula religiosa intermedia) are also skilled mimics. Many common songbirds such as blackbirds and starlings include parts of other bird’s songs in their own performances. However these species do not have the cognitive ability to associate or understand the context of words or phrases it uses compared with an African Grey.
Amazons, Cockatiels and other Parrots can learn to sing and whistle an entire tune. (Most Parrots I know that sing, don’t have the X factor and perform slightly out of tune.)
Among mammals that can copy human sounds, including speech or imitate human whistling are. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), killer whales (Orcinus orca), harbour seals (Phoca vitulina), and elephants have been recorded doing this.
However, no other creature on the planet can mimic human speech, song and sound effects as accurately as a captive Parrot. They are able to copy and repeat hundreds of individual sounds, including human phrases, with uncanny accuracy.
‘Many birds enrich their vocabularies with sounds and other bird’s songs to impress or attract mates. The Lyrebird is perhaps the best exponent of this. But birds also vocalise to ingratiate themselves in a group. This may be the clue to why Parrots, corvids and starlings bond with their human keeper by imitating his vocalisations.
Contrary to popular opinion talking birds are not taught to speak they are eager to imitate. All young birds eventually have to leave their parents and find a new area. It’s well known that birds arriving in a new location will adapt their vocals to match the dialect of birds of their own species in this new location. The need to conform, belong to a group and not be identified as an outsider is a strong instinct in all social animals.’ (email communication from Bill Naylor)
How this is done
Parrots, songbirds, and hummingbirds have the ability to hear and reproduce sounds. All have a bunch of neurons “song nuclei” in their brain. The differences between the song nuclei of Parrots—which can better imitate complex sounds—and other birds are hard to pinpoint.
Erich Jarvis a neurobiologist from Rockefeller University located areas in a Parrot brain thought to facilitate mimicry. These areas are similar in structure to identical areas found in human brains, but not found in non vocal learning monkeys or non vocal learning birds.
In Parrots who excel at mimicry these areas were found to be more pronounced than in Parrots not known for mimicry. In the Macaws, Greys the Amazons, this area named the shell is larger and more pronounced.
Erich Jarvis says, ‘I think we’ve found a primary reason as to why Parrots have better imitation ability than other vocal learning species, and it’s because of this shell region,” he says. “But there are going to have to be more studies to validate this.”
Jarvis’s group went on to find the shell region in the brains of nine different Parrot species, but not in songbirds or hummingbirds, which are generally poorer at imitation. The better at imitating a Parrot species is the larger the shell region was.
Keas (Nestor notabilis), which are more distantly related to other Parrots have a smaller ‘mimicry’ or shell region, suggesting that this area of the brain appeared in Parrot ancestors at least 29 million years ago. Despite not possessing (not as far as is known) an ability to mimic human speech, the Keas demonstrate intelligence and excel in cognitive behaviour.
“We think that the shells evolved as a mechanism for more complex vocal imitation,” Jarvis says. Parrots’ imitation abilities—in addition to providing party tricks for bird owners—are essential for wild birds to communicate with one another —to mate, pass along alarms, defend territory, or identify one another.’
Jarvis suspects the shell may have originally began evolving when the song nuclei, which is like that of songbirds, completely duplicated within the brain, and then began evolving new functions. If this hypothesis holds true, future studies on the Parrot vocal shell could give key insight into the origins of such brain duplications—which have been hypothesized to occur in the past and could explain complex areas of the brain in humans and other animals.
Jarvis and his colleagues are planning more studies to test whether this brain region is indeed what allows Parrots to mimic’
Why did birds’ brains evolve so far?
Catherine Toft puts forward a convincing argument for the evolutionary need of cleverness in bird species.
Brainier Parrots occur where the environment is more uncertain, as an evolutionary adaptation.
“Making a living from resources that are locally abundant but unpredictable in time and space is a considerable challenge that natural selection has met frequently with a certain combination of traits in multiple taxa.”
Intelligence and problem solving are perfect tools for meeting challenges in an environment that is not forthcoming with its riches. Sociality contributes because the group can be more than the sum of its parts. (POTW )
Think of the Scarlet Macaws in the rainforest. Yes, there are abundant food sources but the birds have to keep a map in their heads to know which trees will be ready for foraging and where they grow. This information is transmitted from parent to offspring.
Parrots problem solving
Tool using is documented in a number of birds. The Woodpecker finch from the Galapagos islands uses a thorn to extract insects from tree cavities. The Egyptian vulture smashes ostrich eggs by holding a stone in its beak. Bower birds design build, paint and decorate structures to impress prospective mates.
Ever since Aesop’s fable concerning the crow that raised water in a pitcher to reach a floating piece of bread by adding stones we’ve known that corvids use and manufacture tools both in the wild and in captivity. Betty a crow is an Oxford University research lab on being given a length of wire bent it into a hook to retrieve a piece of meat in glass retort. She had never seen wire before. Her mate did not perform the same behaviour.
Tool using behaviour is also recorded among Parrots. Male Palm Cockatoos during the breeding season whittle a drumstick from a stick and use this to beat out a rhythm on a hollow log. A captive bred hand raised Goffin’s Cockatoo (Cacatua goffiniana) demonstrated even more innovation in tool using and tool making. In the wild Goffins neither make nests nor manufacture tools.
A study published in November 2016 describes the tests carried on four Goffins at Vienna University.
Research into Goffins Cockatoos’ tool behaviour started after a captive male named Figaro spontaneously and reliably manufactured tools by cutting splinters out of larch wood. They used them to rake in cashew nuts placed behind the aviary grid.
In a set of 10 observations, Figaro showed nine instances of tool making, one involving a different substrate (snipping of a branch from a leafless twig). In the later experiments different materials were provided: beeswax, larch wood, cardboard or beech twigs.
All four Cockatoos, Dolittle, Figaro, Kiwi and Pipin manufactured tools to access the cashew nut. That the Cockatoos were able to snip cardboard to the right size and shape meant that were required to shape the material with a pre existing idea of what they were aiming for. The rigour of these experiments precludes any indication of coincidence. And the results were not uniform. None of the birds could shape the beeswax.
Professor Alex Kacelnik said, “We really don’t know if the birds can picture in their minds an object that doesn’t exist yet and follow this image as a template to build something new. Or how their brains elicit the appropriate set of movements to organise their response to a novel problem, but this is what we are trying to find out.” (Quoted in Cage and Aviary Birds page 4, Dec17 2916)
Keas long known to be among the most intelligent of bird species have demonstrated with both captive and wild individuals’ problems solving abilities and cooperation. Wild keas quickly learned that to obtain the food reward one had to pull a string for the other to reach the food.
A Pet Grey
Last May, my African Grey Casper at 14 years of age displayed creativity in escaping out of his cage. Having lost the nut for closing the two top sections, I use a strand of wire twisting the two free ends together. Used it for years. Casper was in this cage with Artha while I free flew Benni Macaw.
Returning at 1 pm, I found Artha in the bottom of the ‘closed’ cage and Casper missing.
At 5 pm Casper flew back to an oak tree beside the aviary roof, and within 20 minutes had flown down to me. He had been seen in the village half a kilometre away that afternoon. He had untwisted the wire and pushed the top open, wriggled out. The cage top slammed itself shut. He has never been shown how to undo twisted wire but he must have seen me twisting wire to close doors and hang toys from ropes.
Virginia Bush in USA spends a long time with Chaucer her African Grey. He has learned by imitating her example how to tie knots. Many Parrot owners will be nodding their heads in agreement and be able to recall incidents when ‘secure’ catches on Parrot cages were deactivated by the inmate who had mentally noted how the catch was secured when demonstrated by their owner.
Feats of memory
I have always puzzled how pet Parrots remember so much. Fifteen years ago my Greys were looked after for one week by a Frenchman. They have never forgotten is accent and from time to time will use English phrases like Good evening in a French accent.
They haven’t seen him since.
Now that I have learned that their little brained are packed tight with neurons it makes their memory feats more plausible.
Bruce Boehrer in Parrot Culturequotes an anecdote reported by the explorer Alexander von Humbolt who traced the course of the Orinocco River in South America. Writing about the warlike tribe of Atures who became extinct at the end of the eighteenth century. Humboldt says.
‘At the period of our voyage an old Parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants relate. The fact is worthy of observation. They did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures,”
Assessing the intelligence of non human species has always been problematical. How do you compare the intelligence of a species that complies with a test with a species that refuses to be tested? The cognitive ability of most species of birds are untested and unknown.
This is where a Parrot’s ability to use human language has enabled a bird’s intelligence to be assessed scientifically. Professor Irene Pepperberg studying an African Grey (Erithacus erithacus) which she bought from a pet shop. Named Alex, (Avian Language EXperiment) he debunked the long held belief that Parrots didn’t understand what they are saying.
Sceptics argued that Alex was responding to subtle body clues that the questioner was unaware of. Dr Pepperberg refutes this; she collaborated with the Parrot she called ‘her colleague’ in his intelligence tests for 30 years. At the time of his death (a stroke in 2007) Alex had learned a vocabulary of over 100 words. Alex knew words for colours and shapes and, could use them in the correct context.
He learned the labels for more than 35 different objects. Alex would transpose words and make up his own. He could use phrases in context such as saying ‘Wanna go back,’ when he had enough of being tested. Alex called an apple a “banerry” thought to be a combination of “banana” and “cherry”, two fruits he was more familiar with.
One of Alex’s more amazing feats was when shown a tray of objects was his ability to say “none” when certain named objects were not on the tray. The implication of this test is that Alex understood the concept of zero.
Generations of Parrot owners have known their feathered companions can associate objects, people and events with particular words or phrases. But this has always been dismissed as anecdotal; Alex made it scientifically official, Parrots can use human language to communicate with humans and express their opinions.
For me an additional evidence of his sentience was that in spite of his enriched life in the laboratory, Alex was – from time to time – self-plucking. His primary caregiver Irene Pepperberg was sometimes away and he lived alone in a cage when he was not working although later there were other Greys in his vicinity. In addition he was never out of doors and never flighted.
Vocal learning in wild Parrots
It was thought African Greys don’t mimic in the wild. But in 1993 wild African Greys were recorded copying other bird species. Wild Cockatoos in Australia have also been heard repeating phrases such “Hi-ya” and ‘good-day mate. They probably learned from escaped pets that have joined their flock.
Admittedly wild Parrots don’t regularly indulge in mimicry. But like much of wild Parrot behaviour their abilities in this area may have been overlooked.
Research, led by Karl Berg of Cornell University, used video cameras to record the communication process of green-rumped Parrots (Forpus passerinus) in Venezuela. The wild Parrot study showed that even before chicks begin to chirp back at their parents, adults give them a signature sound, basically a name by which they are addressed. The babies will take this sound and in some cases tweak it before using it throughout their life.
Wild Parrots communicate vocally with their flock to socialise or to teach. It’s been established by Ralph Wanker and his colleagues from Vienna University that even a small Parrot, the spectacled Parrotlet (Forpus conspicillatus) in Venezuela, uses a different sound for each nestling, analogous to names.
Parrots are not the only animals that respond to rhythm and can dance. The internet sensation Snowball, an Elenora Cockatoo (cacatua galerita) is talented but not unique. The ability to play and to dance are an expression of consciousness as well as in instinctive behaviour.
I would also contend that Parrots have a sense of humour. This has never been scientifically proved but rests on anecdotal evidence for bird handlers. Two examples from my own flock.
Artha knows some nursery rhymes. Georgie Porgie Puddin an pie, kissed the girls and made them cry. Artha transposed to Artha-Partha Pudden and pie.
Benni, my Blue and Gold Macaw, knows the recall command but often chooses not to respond. Out in the garden where he was free flying, I would whistle. He would fly down to my arm and at the last minute zoom upwards and say ‘Hello, Benni.’
Are Parrots conscious – self-aware? I think so and that gives us an added responsibility to provide for their welfare in captivity and their conservation in the wild.
Let me finish with a quote from Francis De Waal (April 2016)
We used to think in terms of a linear ladder of intelligence with humans on top. But nowadays we realize it is more like a bush with lots of different branches. Each species evolves the mental powers it needs to survive. As a result, some bird species may be mentally closer to the primates than anyone imagined.
Resources and references
Papers and Articles cited
1 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: June 28, 2016 no. 26 | 7255–7260 .To read on line: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1517131113
Newly Identified Brain Structure in Birdsby Sarah C.P William.
http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/06/newly-identified-brain-structure-4 Bird brain:
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence by Dr Nathan Emory
Parrots in the Wild, A Natural History of the World’s Most Captivating BirdsToft and Wright ) (POTW page 136)
Our 2500-year-long Fascination with the World’s Most Talkative Bird – B T Boehrer University of Pennsylvania Press 2004
The Alex Studies- Dr Irene Pepperberg 1999
Ralph Wanker et al’ 2005 ‘Vocal Labelling of family members in Spectacled
X Parrotlets (forpus conspicillatus) Animal Behaviour 70 Page 111-117
You can see the Goffins pick locks. www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8fl7BKYBUM
Snowball Elenora Cockatoo dancing
Alex showing his observation of objects https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yGOgs_UlEc
Cockatoo Pics Credit Bene Croy. All other pics Dot Schwarz
This article appeared in Parrot Society Magazine.