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Are parrots more intelligent than pigeons?

Are Pigeons Smarter Than Parrots?

(Last Updated On: May 31, 2023)

Part of the Columbidae family, pigeons are an ever-present part of Western towns and cities. Sadly, many of us consider pigeons pests, failing to realize they’re among the smartest birds.

Intelligence tests have identified that pigeons can determine human faces by sight, differentiate between classic artworks of painters, recognize human words, and count numbers.

Pigeons are also famed for their homing instinct and ability to locate and return to a nest or assigned territory. The brainpower of pigeons should be celebrated as a rival to Psittacidae and Corvids.

While pigeons can’t talk like parrots and are unlikely to form the same deep bonds with human companions, they’re clever, good-natured animals that can be domesticated and kept as pets.

Are Pigeons Related To Parrots?

Both birds are clever, so you may wonder if they share the same DNA.

Pigeons and parrots aren’t related, aside from being birds. Pigeons belong to the Columbidae family, along with doves, while parrots belong to the Psittacidae family.

Pigeons and parrots rarely interact in the wild as they gravitate to different habitats.

While some parrots, like monk parakeets, nest and dwell in major metropolitan areas, most larger parrots live in rainforests and tropical terrain. Pigeons, meanwhile, are ever-present in urban areas worldwide. 

Parrots and pigeons can’t breed. Rumors occasionally circulate of parrot-pigeon crossbreeds when unusually colorful pigeons are spotted in the wild.

This usually happens when domestic pigeons’ feathers have been dyed to aid recognition and discovery.

Similarities Between Parrots And Pigeons

Parrots and pigeons have wings, feathers, nares, beaks, a four-chambered heart, and a lightweight skeleton. They prefer to live in flocks and frequently form monogamous pair bonds.

are pigeons the smartest birds?

Differences Between Parrots And Pigeons

Pigeons and parrots are divided by more than what unites them. Fundamental variations between pigeons and parrots include:

  • Parrots have a prominent, curved hookbill beak, while pigeons have a small, straight softbill.
  • Pigeons scavenge for food dropped by humans, while parrots are picky eaters.
  • Parrots are tall and slim, while pigeons are shorter and stockier.
  • Most pigeons have gray, monochromatic feathers, while parrots boast bright colors and markings.
  • Parrots can mimic human speech, while pigeons communicate exclusively in coos.
  • Pigeons often approach unfamiliar humans, while parrots are frequently much more skittish.
  • Some parrot species have human-like lifespans, while captive pigeons can live for about 15 years.

Most people can instantly tell parrots and pigeons apart by sight alone.

How Clever Are Pigeons?

Pigeons don’t enjoy a positive relationship with humans, often decried as vermin or rats with wings.

This dislike for pigeons stems from the noise they make, the diseases they carry, and their tendency to defecate in public spaces. Many people don’t realize that pigeons are clever and have feelings.

Here are some examples of their intelligence:

  • According to the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, pigeons can tell the difference between works of art, such as identifying a Monet or Picasso painting over a Renoir or Braque.
  • PLoS One explains how pigeons can be trained to recognize warnings of malignant tumors in a human X-ray, identifying this over other, healthy scans.
  • Primates are often celebrated for their intelligence, but a study in Science claims that pigeons have equal ability in counting and numeracy.
  • The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claim that pigeons pair these numerical skills with an ability to distinguish different human words.
  • As per Biology Letters, pigeons within a flock will stage a coup and overthrow an ineffective leader if they consider this necessary for the species’ survival.

Alongside an innate intelligence, pigeons have excellent memories that rival a parrot’s. A study published in Neuropsychologia found birds memorizing more data quicker than many humans could manage.

This suggests that pigeons deserve more respect for their critical thinking skills than they’re given.

How Big Are Pigeon’s Brains?

If you’ve ever seen a pigeon, you may wonder why they’re so clever when their heads are so small. In terms of pure mass, a pigeon’s brain is no larger than the tip of a human index finger.

Although pigeons’ brains lack a neocortex, the part of a mammal’s brain associated with high functionality like motor function, language, and cognition, the avian brain receives similar messages through neurons called the dorsal ventricular ridge (DVR) and wulst.

While an autopsy of the avian brain produces similar results to a mammal’s brain, individual neurons in a pigeon’s brain react to stimuli (including sight, sound, and scent) similarly to primates. 

Can Pigeons Talk Like Parrots?

One area pigeons can’t rival parrots is verbal communication.

Unlike parrots, pigeons are incapable of mimicking human speech. Pigeons will coo in response to human language, even if the bird understands what you say.

This is a matter of biology. Pigeons don’t have a syrinx – a voice box at the bottom of the trachea. Consequently, pigeons can’t pronounce words and sentences with their vocal cords and air sacs.

How Have Pigeons Adapted to Their Environment?

Perhaps the most impressive thing about pigeons is how well they’ve integrated into urban areas populated by humans. Why are pigeons so successful, despite being so widely discouraged from settling?

The Columbidae family contains over 300 different types of birds, although the most common pigeon found throughout the Western world is the rock pigeon (Columba livia.) This is the gray feathered bird with a green head we encounter in most cities and towns in the USA.

The rock pigeon was initially called the rock dove upon formal discovery in 1789, although it’s believed to date back to 3,000 BC. The rock dove was officially renamed the rock pigeon in 2004.

It was initially native to cliffs and rock tops in coastal areas, hence the name “rock dove.” Over time, pigeons moved into cities and towns as tall buildings provide equally suitable nesting sites, and the presence of humans means that food is always plentiful.

A willingness to snatch food from the floor or out of trash cans means that pigeons don’t need to hunt for food, potentially keeping them out of danger and away from predators.

How a pigeon flies is also at the heart of adapting to life in urban territories. The wingspan of a pigeon allows the bird to travel at speeds of over 70 mph, changing direction at a moment’s notice.

This helps pigeons swoop for food and take off again in seconds. These speeds can also be sustained for prolonged periods, so domesticated rock pigeons are frequently used as racing pigeons.

Pigeons can also hover, which is achieved by adjusting the wings to counter gravity, with the downward stroke essentially acting as a parachute.

Pigeons can pluck food from elevated locations without stopping and perching.

Why Are Pigeons Not Afraid of Humans?

Unless actively startled or shooed away by humans, most pigeons appear indifferent to our presence. This is a sharp contrast to parrots, many of whom are highly skittish in the company of unfamiliar people.

Part of a pigeon’s lack of fear toward humans is due to exposure. Most pigeons are hatched and raised in populated areas, meaning they’re surrounded by people from an early age. Humans are as much a part of pigeons’ life experience as other avian life.

Avian Biology Research explains that pigeons may begin to fear specific humans if mistreated because they can recall and differentiate between human faces.

how big are parrots brains?

Are Pigeons The Smartest Birds?

While pigeon fanciers and enthusiasts will always make a case for these birds being the most intelligent avian species, parrots have just as advanced a claim to this title.

The argument as to which is the smartest bird revolves around what is valued most and is used to define intelligence. Parrots are the most skilled talkers, corvids (like crows and ravens) are superior problem solvers, and pigeons can follow instructions and find any location.

A parrot will meet more common human standards of intelligence than a pigeon. A parrot will chat, learn tricks, entertain, and bond with its owners. A pigeon is likelier to be quiet and docile.

Conversely, pigeons are slightly less destructive and compliant than parrots, making them cleaner pets.

What Is The Smartest Breed of Pigeon?

Few pigeon species have been extensively studied or welcomed into homes as pets. Few pigeon breeds have been subject to assessment, so most scientific experiments involve rock pigeons.

Trained rock pigeons were also used as messenger birds, most notably during the First and Second World Wars. A notable example was Cher Ami, a trained rock pigeon who delivered a dozen vital communications between Allied battalions during World War I.

Cher Ami was shot through the heart and leg on his final mission in 1918 but delivered his critical last message, saving the lives of 194 soldiers.

In recognition of his bravery and intelligence, the French military awarded Cher Ami the Croix de Guerre (“War Cross”) before returning to America and dying from his wounds.

Cher Ami’s body was preserved through taxidermy, and his remains are displayed in Washington DC’s Smithsonian Museum to this day.

The exhibition is an important reminder of the intelligence and trainability of the humble rock pigeon.

What’s The Smartest Parrot Species?

The intelligence of psittacine birds has been more widely assessed than pigeons. While all parrots are lauded for their intelligence, the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) is considered the smartest.

Experiments to test the African grey’s reasoning skills, published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology and Proceedings of the Royal Society, compare their intellect to primates and dolphins.

The speaking ability of the African grey is the gold standard of psittacines. African greys pick up on human language faster than other species and can learn up to 1,000 words.

Parrots and pigeons are intelligent birds with unique traits and abilities. Pigeons may not enjoy the positive reputation associated with parrots, but they’re smart, sensitive animals worthy of admiration.