It’s said that parrots have the intelligence of toddlers – and to some extent, that’s true. Their intelligence, superior memory, and vocal skills put them above other creatures. You might even see them as cleverer than dogs or cats. This is a much-debated topic in the avian community. After all, evolutionary biology isn’t as simple as researchers would like it to be.
Parrots are intelligent because their brains are similar to humans. They have a highly evolved genome sequence. This regulates language, memory, and spatial awareness. Their creativity and intellect are evolutionary byproducts of survival tactics. Biologists theorize that their intelligence slowly developed alongside their extensive life spans.
Intelligence shows itself in different ways. Parrots may be very clever, but they also fail the mirror test like dogs, cats, and even human toddlers. Likewise, not all parrot species have the same cognitive abilities. African grey parrots are said to be the smartest of all. They have better mimicking, memory, and understanding of language than any other bird species.
Parrot Intelligence Facts
Parrots are arguably the most intelligent type of bird in the world. The reason behind this lies in their unique brain structure. However, you don’t need to look at parrots under a microscope to see their smarts in practice.
Just take a look online or at your own parrot. You’ll see the birds using this intelligence to be able to:
- Dance, to the point of even coming up with their own dance moves.
- Speak, with one parrot learning human grammar and context clues for language.
- Understand the bodies of other creatures and associate them with their own. So, if you lift your arm, a parrot will deduce that its wing should be lifted to match.
- Remember key features about certain animals or humans. For example, a parrot may remember that its previous owner had long hair.
- Adapt to new social settings. Parrots that join new flocks will ‘learn the language’ of their new group.
- Assign specific calls to their owners. A parrot will use this to find you and ask how you are.
- Solve puzzles. Parrots can unlock puzzle boxes or navigate games.
- Show emotion. Parrots can get jealous and even recognize certain bonds between humans.
- Remember objects or paths. This allows parrots to navigate in the wild or find hidden toys at the end of a maze.
- Develop dialects. Parrot flocks will have calls unique to their group. They’ll even change them if they join a new group.
That’s just to name a few ways parrots display intelligence. But how have these birds managed to get so smart?
Parrot Brain Facts
Did you know that parrot brains are very similar to our own? According to a study published in PLOS ONE, parrots have a region of their genome sequence that is more developed than other birds.
A genome contains the entire genetic information of a living organism. The specific region from the study is the one in charge of:
- Spatial awareness
Since this area is so developed, parrots can display human-like qualities. You can match that to the parrot’s medial spiriform nuclei. The medial spiriform nuclei are what connects:
- The cortex
- To the cerebellum
These two parts of the brain allow parrots to imitate what they hear. It’s here that we see how parrots can talk like we do. This section of the brain is more developed than in other birds. As such, we can think of a parrot as smarter than a canary, finch, or other avian species.
In the wild, parrot communication is some of the most effective seen in any bird. They use their cognitive abilities to escape predators, socialize, and survive longer.
Parrot Brain Size Facts
Parrots also have a brain uniquely shaped to be smart. Specifically, parrots are so great at talking because they have an asymmetrical brain. The left hemisphere specializes in language. This has helped parrots to develop fission-fusion flocks. These are societies that:
- Move around different environments.
- Merge and split from others of the same species.
- Forage in smaller groups during the day.
Much like the hunter-gatherer groups that humans came from, the communication among the parrot flocks changes frequently. So, parrots had to learn to be flexible. Part of this involved developing vocal skills and memory. They had to adapt to the constant change in the flock’s communication network.
Comparatively speaking, parrots have brains that are similar in size to a primate’s. This big-brained effect gives parrots a different kind of intelligence, but an impressive one. They even have more control over their vocal cords than primates.
Sure, they can’t puzzle out the same complex problems or understand information the same as primates. However, they do have their own advantages.
Are Parrots Smarter Than Cats Or Dogs?
With all that said, you might think parrots are the cleverest pet of all. That’s difficult to say, as intelligence is measured in different ways. For example, parrots have the ability to learn words and vocalize. That means some of the tests done on parrots to measure their intelligence differs from those performed on other animals.
Many dog breeds are smart enough to join police or military forces. While cats aren’t given human jobs based on their intelligence, they can still solve puzzles and have strong memories. How can we test them against parrots accurately?
There is one experiment that puts animal intelligence to the test. It can be used as a general benchmark when comparing how smart these animals are. This test was designed to evaluate their self-awareness – a key element of intelligence.
The Mirror Test For Animals
The mirror test (also known as the mark test) is performed when:
- An animal is anesthetized.
- A red mark or sticker is placed on the animal in an area the animal cannot normally see for itself.
After the animal wakes up from anesthesia, a mirror is placed in its general vicinity. Researchers will watch to see if the animal:
- Sees its reflection in the mirror
- Touches the mark and investigates it
If it does, that indicates the animal is aware of its own reflection. The animal can also tell that the image in the mirror is itself – and not some other animal.
Dogs will either invite the reflection to play or not react. Cats will sometimes react aggressively, believing the reflection to be another cat. However, for the most part, they don’t react at all.
The marks on African grey parrots were placed on their necks since birds are blind from the beak down. When observing their reflection in the mirror, the parrots reacted aggressively and even tried to bite the mirror. The aggression got even worse when the mirror was placed vertically. The parrots would attempt to attack their own reflection.
Are Parrots Smarter Than Other Pets?
It takes a complex and thoroughly developed mind to be self-aware. As a matter of fact, studies have been performed to narrow down which part of the brain is responsible for self-awareness in humans. This revealed that no specific part of the brain rules over awareness. Instead, it’s a complex patchwork of neural circuits that run across all brain regions.
Not a single dog or cat has been able to pass the mirror test. Not even African grey parrots, the smartest of the parrot species, were able to pass. At the very least, this indicates that the number of neural pathways across the brains of parrots is about the same as cats and dogs.
So, why do we praise parrot intelligence so much? Because they can repeat what we say. They can only do this because they have better motor control. This means they can use their throat muscles to mimic what they hear. However, that doesn’t mean they understand what they say.
Most researchers agree that if dogs and cats were able to mimic us, we would see them as intelligent as parrots.
Parrot Brain vs. Human Brain
Certain evolutionary pressures caused parrot brains to develop like humans. However, the roads taken to get there diverged at some point. On the surface, parrot brains are similar to human brains. If you look closer, though, you’ll find that many things set us apart.
Neural Circuit vs. Neural Connector
Mammals have a neural circuit that connects the cortex to the cerebellum.
- The cortex is in charge of sensory information
- The cerebellum is in charge of voluntary movement
Because of this connection, we can voluntarily scratch an itch. This neural circuit is called the pontine nuclei. Parrots, on the other hand, have a neural connector called the medial spiriform nuclei. This serves the same function in their brain but is slightly different in structure.
Parrot Neurons vs. Human Neurons
Humans have bigger brains than parrots do. This means we have more neurons. However, the neurons on a parrot’s brain are a lot denser than ours. As such, they have more connections between different parts of the brain. This allows for better information and sensory processing.
|Species||Number of Neurons||Neural Density|
|Humans||86.06 billion||57 grams|
|Ravens||2.17 billion||154 grams|
|African grey parrots||1.57 billion||177 grams|
|Starlings||483 million||260 grams|
|Blackbirds||38 million||201 grams|
Having denser neural connections across the brain means that parrots have a better:
- Sense of smell
- Color vision (they can see ultraviolet, which is naked to the human eye)
- Reaction time
General Connection vs. Specific Connection
However, the sheer amount of neurons that humans have still gives us an advantage over parrots. We may not have a lot of small neural circuits that connect two sections of our brains. However, we do have a complex, general connection that unites the entirety of our brain. This is why we are smarter than parrots.
How Smart Are Parrots Compared to Humans?
Aside from brain structure, we can class ourselves as smarter than parrots in a few ways.
As shown with the mirror test, self-awareness is a great benchmark for intelligence in animals. It can be said that the brain structure of parrots is at least similar to human children. Specifically, they match children less than 18 months old.
Children at this age (and younger) do not recognize themselves in mirrors. They don’t pass the mark test until much later in life. This happens when they’ve reached a certain degree of brain development. Parrots, on the other hand, cannot grow beyond this limitation with age.
Apart from self-awareness, language is also a great way to compare human and parrot intelligence. It’s no secret that parrots are great mimickers. But how much do they understand what they’re saying? As it turns out, many parrots are just mimicking. They don’t actually place meaning into what they say.
This is why it’s so accurate to compare their intelligence to that of a toddler. For example, a small child may learn that saying the words “mommy” and “milk” will result in the acquisition of sustenance. Here, the child has been conditioned to associate those words with an outcome. It doesn’t actually understand what those words mean.
This is exactly what happens with the domestic parrots that have been trained to “talk.” They are just conditioned to associate words with specific:
- Voice tones
Only one African grey parrot, named Alex, has been able to use language to resemble that of humans. According to California State University, Alex was a part of a 30-year experiment. During the course of the study, he was able to:
- Learn over 100 words
- Recognize colors, shapes, and objects
- Understand the concept of zero
- Learned, on his own, how to let the researchers know where he wanted to go
Another great way to determine human vs. parrot intelligence is by testing logical reasoning. A study published in the scientific journal Behavior explains that African Grey parrots have the logical reasoning abilities of a 5-year-old.
This was tested by playing a game. Here, an object of interest (usually a nut) was hidden under a cup while keeping the other cup empty. It was a positive sign when the parrot:
- Chose the empty cup
- But then proceeded to tap at the cup with the nut out of curiosity
This was proof that parrots had simple deduction skills. As the study progressed, this game was played with 4 cups instead of 2. Here, children under the age of 2.5 actually struggled to understand the concept of the game and become frustrated.
The game became easier to play for older children. By age 5, children would understand completely and abide by the principle known as “inference by exclusion.” The study showed that parrots had the cognitive reasoning abilities of 5-year-olds.
Cleverest Parrot Species
Not all parrots have the same level of intelligence. Many factors come into play, such as:
- Average life span
Female parrots are known to speak less than male parrots. Bigger birds (with bigger brains) are known to be the cleverest types of parrots. Here’s a list of the cleverest parrot species by intelligence:
|Parrot Species||Average Life Span||Average Size|
|African Grey parrots||40 to 60 years||33 cm in length|
|Macaws||50 years||60 to 100 cm in length|
|Cockatoos||20 to 60 years||46 to 50 cm in length|
|Amazon parrots||50 years||28 to 33 cm in length|
|Conures||30 years||30 cm in length|
|Budgies||5 to 10 years||18 cm in length|
|Eclectus parrots||30 years||35 cm in length|
|Quaker parrots||15 to 20 years||29 cm in length|
|Parakeets||15 to 20 years||29 to 46 cm in length|
What Are the Smartest Talking Birds?
The smartest talking birds are:
- African greys
Other parrot species are easy to train and learn how to mimic quickly. However, that doesn’t make them more intelligent than others. Parakeets are among the most talkative birds, but their cognitive abilities can’t compare to African grey parrots. When talking about intelligence among parrot species, there’s more to consider than just how good they are at speaking. The different parrot species can be classified into 3 tiers:
- African grey parrots, macaws, cockatoos, and Amazon parrots.
- Conures, budgies, and Eclectus parrots.
- Quaker parrots and parakeets.
The ranking is determined by the general behavioral patterns displayed in each species. Specifically, these are actions that display their level of intelligence. How much they speak is taken into consideration. After all, this indicates how developed some parts of their brains are. However, it isn’t a defining factor when ranking them by intelligence.
How Smart Are African Grey Parrots?
African grey parrots are the most cognitively developed parrot species. They can differentiate between shapes and colors. They’re also good at puzzle games.
Domestic African grey parrots might have trouble reaching their full cognitive potential. They do best when raised and trained by an avian expert. With that said, for the most part, they can figure out the most impressive tricks on their own.
There is a downside, however. Because of their intelligence, they are prone to what avian experts call “stereotypes.”
Stereotypes are a series of neurotic behaviors. These are usually brought on by stress and trauma. African grey parrots are extremely emotional and get stressed easily. As such, they are often troublesome to deal with. Their tantrums are often compared to toddler tantrums.
Scientists also believe that the sensitivity to stress in African grey parrots is similar to humans. Because of this, they are smarter than other birds since it takes complex cognition to be as emotional as they are.
How Smart Are Conures?
Conures are capable of learning multiple tricks. They aren’t as talkative as other parrots but can still be trained to mimic with time.
They can understand simple orders. However, they will have trouble with complex tasks that bigger parrots could learn with ease. They are more interested in physical tricks. That makes it easier to train a conure to be an acrobat instead of a scholar.
Still, conures (especially sun conures) have fantastic memories. They never forget the tricks they’ve been taught.
Some people might have trouble training conures and believe them to be less intelligent. However, conures are known to be pretty obedient. When they don’t want to learn something new or don’t follow orders, it’s because they are lazy. It’s not because they don’t understand.
How Smart Are Quaker Parrots?
Quaker parrots are smart. They can learn to mimic more words than even Amazon parrots. However, they still aren’t considered to be the smartest parrot. That’s because they often forget what they’ve learned.
Quaker parrots are known to be super-easy to train. With that said, once they have learned something, you have to continue to practice it. Otherwise, your parrot will lose the skill. Their terrible memory puts them near the bottom of the list compared to clever birds like African grey parrots and macaws. Nonetheless, they are still smarter than other birds.
In that vein, only male quaker parrots will mimic humans. This is because, in the wild, male parrots will mimic female parrots to catch their attention. That helps to attract a mate. As such, it’s reasonable for male parrots to be better talkers.
Unfortunately, some people aren’t aware of this. Instead, they believe that their female quaker is just too dumb to learn how to talk. This has given quakers a bad reputation among those that don’t know much about parrots.
Parrots are intelligent because nature has required them to be. It’s helped their survival and reflects in their brain structure. While parrots may not be smarter than humans (and some other pets), they are very clever.