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Why Are Parrots So Intelligent?

Last Updated on February 23, 2024 by Carrie Stephens

Parrots’ intelligence, memory function, and talking ability rank them above other clever animals.

Perhaps you see parrots as smarter than cats or dogs. This topic is hotly debated because evolutionary biology isn’t as easy to compare and contrast as scientists would like.

Parrots are intelligent because they have an evolved genome sequence that regulates language, memory, and spatial awareness. Their creativity and intellect are evolutionary byproducts of survival instincts.

Ornithologists theorize that their intelligence slowly developed alongside their often extensive life spans.

Parrots may be clever, but they fail the mirror test like dogs, cats, and human toddlers. Likewise, not all Psittaciformes have the same cognitive abilities, with African grays considered the cleverest parrots.

Parrot Intelligence Facts

You can observe parrots using their intelligence in the following ways:

  • Creating unique dance moves and walks for mating rituals.
  • Gaining context clues when using human words.
  • Body movement association. A parrot will deduce that its wing should be lifted if you lift your arm.
  • Remembering physical features. A parrot may remember that a previous owner had long hair.
  • Assigning specific calls to their owners. A parrot will use its call to find you and check how you are.
  • Solving puzzles. Parrots can unlock puzzle boxes and navigate games.
  • Showing emotions. Parrots show their feelings (happiness, anger, sadness, jealousy, etc.) Their emotional depth means they can develop strong bonds with humans and other birds.
  • Parrots remember objects or paths. They can navigate the wild or find toys in a maze.
  • Develop dialects. Flocks have unique calls and can change them if they join a new one.

Parrots may be the most intelligent bird species due to their unique brain structure, but corvids are also clever. Corvids, like crows and ravens, have entirely different skills and abilities.

Parrot Brain Facts

Parrot and human brains have similar structures.

According to PLOS ONE, parrots have a region of their genome sequence that’s more developed than other birds. A genome contains the complete genetic information of a living organism.

The specific region is the one responsible for:

  • Language.
  • Memory.
  • Spatial awareness.
  • Mimicry.

Since this area is so developed, parrots can display human-like qualities. You can pair this with the medial spiriform nuclei that connect the cortex to the cerebellum.

These parts of the brain allow parrots to imitate what they hear. It’s here that we find out how parrots can talk like humans. This is why we consider parrots smarter than crows, canaries, finches, and ravens.

Parrots’ communication is among the most effective of any bird species. Parrots use their cognitive abilities to avoid predators, socialize, and survive longer.

what are the smartest talking birds?

Parrot Brain Size

Parrots are good at talking because they have asymmetrical brains. The left hemisphere specializes in language, which has enabled them 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 parrot flocks frequently changed, so they had to learn to be flexible.

Part of this involved developing vocal skills and memory because they had to adapt to the constant changes in the flock’s communication network.

Parrots vs. Cats vs. Dogs Intelligence

They aren’t easy to assess due to the different measurement methods.

Parrots can learn words and speak like humans, so tests performed on parrots to measure their intelligence differ from those performed on other animals.

Many dog breeds are smart enough to join police or military forces. While not given human jobs based on intelligence, cats can still solve puzzles and have good memories.

An experiment tests animal intelligence and is used as a benchmark for evaluating their self-awareness.

The Mirror Test For Animals

The mirror test (also called 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 can’t usually see for itself.

After the animal awakens, a mirror is placed nearby. Researchers watch to see if the animal:

  • Sees its reflection in the mirror.
  • Touches the mark and investigates it.

If it does, that indicates it’s aware of its reflection. The animal can also tell that the image in the mirror is itself and not some other animal.

Dogs may invite the reflection to play or not react. Cats may respond aggressively, believing the reflection to be another feline. However, for the most part, they don’t react at all.

The marks on African gray parrots were placed on their necks since birds are blind from the beak down.

When observing their reflection in the mirror, African gray parrots tried to bite the mirror. The aggression worsened when the mirror was positioned vertically as they would attack their reflection.

Parrots Intelligence vs. Other Pets

Studies have narrowed 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 neural circuit network that runs across all brain regions.

Not one dog or cat has passed the mirror test. Even African gray parrots, the most intelligent parrot species, couldn’t pass the test.

At the very least, this indicates that the number of neural pathways across the brains of parrots is about the same as that of cats and dogs.

We value parrot intelligence because they can repeat what we say. They can only do this because they have better motor control.

That doesn’t mean they understand what they say. Most researchers agree that if dogs and cats could mimic humans, we would consider them as clever as parrots.

Parrot Brain vs. Human Brain

Evolutionary pressures caused parrots’ brains to develop like humans.

The roads taken to get there diverged at some point. On the surface, parrots’ brains are similar to human brains. However, many things set us apart when you look closer.

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.

Due to this connection, we can voluntarily scratch an itch. This neural circuit is called the pontine nuclei.

Parrots 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 larger brains than parrots, which means we have more neurons.

However, the neurons in a parrot’s brain are far denser than ours. They have more connections between different parts of the brain, allowing for better information and sensory processing.

SpeciesNumber of NeuronsNeural Density
Humans86.06 billion57 grams
Ravens2.17 billion154 grams
African gray parrots1.57 billion177 grams
Starlings483 million260 grams
Blackbirds38 million201 grams

Having denser neural connections across the brain means that parrots have a better:

  • Sense of smell.
  • Hearing.
  • Color vision.
  • Reaction time.

Parrots can see ultraviolet light, which is naked to the human eye.

General Connection vs. Specific Connection

The number of neurons humans have gives us an advantage over parrots.

We don’t have many small neural circuits connecting two sections of our brains, but we have a complex connection that unites the entirety of our brains. That’s why humans are smarter than parrots.

Parrots Intelligence vs. Humans

Aside from brain structure, we can classify ourselves as more intelligent than parrots.

Self-Awareness

The mirror test shows that self-awareness is a good benchmark for animal intelligence. The brain structure of parrots is similar to that of human toddlers (less than 18 months old).

Children at this age don’t recognize themselves in mirrors. They don’t pass the mark test until much later in life, which happens once they’ve reached a certain level of brain development.

Parrots can’t grow beyond this limitation with age.

Language

It’s no secret that parrots are good at mimicry, but do they understand what they’re saying? As it turns out, parrots mimic words and don’t place meaning into what they say.

This is why comparing their intelligence to that of a toddler is accurate. For example, a small child may learn that saying “mommy” and “milk” will result in getting what they need.

Here, the child has been conditioned to associate those words with an outcome but doesn’t understand what those words mean.

This is what happens with parrots trained to talk and are conditioned to associate words with:

  • Expressions.
  • Gestures.
  • Voice tones.

Only one African gray parrot, Alex, has used language resembling humans. According to California State University, Alex was part of a 30-year experiment. During the study, Alex was able to:

  • Learn over 100 words.
  • Recognize colors, shapes, and objects.
  • Understand the concept of zero.
  • Learned how to let the researchers know where he wanted to go.

Logic

parrot brain size

Testing logical reasoning is another effective way to determine human vs. parrot intelligence. A study in the journal Behavior explains that African grays 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:

  • Chooses the empty cup.
  • Tapped at the cup containing 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 struggled to understand the game’s concept and became frustrated.

The game became easier for older children. By age 5, children understood and abided by the principle of “inference by exclusion.”

Smartest Talking Birds

When discussing the intelligence of different parrot species, there’s more to consider than how well they speak. The different species can be classified into three tiers:

  • African gray parrots, macaws, cockatoos, and Amazon parrots.
  • Conures, budgerigars, and Eclectus parrots.
  • Quaker parrots and most parakeets.

The ranking is determined by the 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 well-developed some parts of their brains are. However, it isn’t a defining factor when ranking them by intelligence.

Parrots are intelligent because their survival requires them to be that way. While parrots aren’t as intelligent as humans and some other animals, they’re very clever birds.