Home » Why Are Parrots So Intelligent? Parrot Brain vs. Other Animals
parrot intelligence facts

Why Are Parrots So Intelligent? Parrot Brain vs. Other Animals

It’s claimed that parrots have the intelligence of toddlers, and to some extent, that’s true. Their intelligence, superior memory, and vocal skills rank them above many other animals.

You may even see them as cleverer than dogs or cats. This is a hotly-debated topic in the avian community, as evolutionary biology isn’t as simple as researchers 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 tactics.

Biologists theorize that their intelligence slowly developed alongside their extensive life spans.

Parrots may be clever, but they fail the mirror test, just like dogs, cats, and human toddlers did. Likewise, not all parrot species have the same cognitive abilities, with African greys being the smartest parrots.

Parrot Intelligence Facts

Parrots may be the most intelligent birds due to their unique brain structure. You can see them using this intelligence in the following ways:

  • Dancing and even coming up with unique dance moves.
  • Speaking with one parrot, learning human grammar, and gaining context clues for language.
  • Associate body movements. If you lift your arm, a parrot will deduce that its wing should be lifted.
  • Remember the features of animals. A parrot may remember that its previous owner had long hair.
  • Adapt to new social settings. Parrots that join new flocks 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 and navigate games.
  • Show emotions. Parrots can get jealous and recognize bonds between humans.
  • Remember objects or paths. Parrots can navigate the wild or find hidden toys at the end of a maze.
  • Develop dialects. parrot flocks have unique calls and change them if they join a new flock.

Parrot Brain Facts

Parrots’ brains have a similar structure to human brains.

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 the following:

  • Language
  • Memory
  • Spatial awareness
  • Mimicking

Since this area is so developed, parrots can display human-like qualities. You can pair that with the medial spiriform nuclei, which 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. So, we can think of a parrot as smarter than a canary, finch, crow, or other avian species.

In the wild, parrot communication is among the most effective seen in any bird species. Parrots use their cognitive abilities to escape predators, socialize, and survive for 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, as they had to adapt to the constant changes in the flock’s communication network.

Are Parrots Smarter Than Cats Or Dogs?

You may think parrots are the cleverest animal, but it isn’t easy to assess because intelligence is measured differently.

Parrots can learn words and vocalize. That means some 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 cats aren’t given human jobs based on their intelligence, they can still solve puzzles and have good memories.

An experiment puts animal intelligence to the test; it’s used as a benchmark when evaluating their self-awareness, which is a key component 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 can’t normally see for itself.

After the animal wakes up from anesthesia, a mirror is placed in its 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 reflection. The animal can also tell that the image in the mirror is itself and not some other animal.

Dogs will 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 tried to bite the mirror.

The aggression grew worse when the mirror was positioned vertically as they would attack their reflection.

Are Parrots Smarter Than 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 a single dog or cat has passed the mirror test. Even African grey parrots, the smartest parrot species, could 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 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, meaning 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 could mimic humans, we would see them as intelligent as parrots.

Parrot Brain vs. Human Brain

Certain evolutionary pressures caused parrots’ brains to develop like humans.

However, the roads taken to get there diverged at some point. On the surface, parrots’ brains are similar to human brains. If you look closer, 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

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, which serve the same function in their brain but are 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. So, 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 grey 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 (they can see ultraviolet, which is naked to the human eye)
  • Reaction time

General Connection vs. Specific Connection

However, the number of neurons humans have gives us an advantage over parrots.

We may not have many small neural circuits connecting two sections of our brains. However, we have a complex connection that unites the entirety of our brains, which is why humans are smarter than parrots.

How Smart Are Parrots Compared to Humans?

Aside from brain structure, we can class ourselves as being more intelligent than parrots in certain ways:

Self-Awareness

The mirror test shows that self-awareness is a good benchmark for animal intelligence. The brain structure of parrots is similar to 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 degree of brain development.

Parrots can’t grow beyond this limitation with age.

Language

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 mimic and don’t place meaning into what they say.

This is why it’s accurate to compare their intelligence to a toddler. For example, a small child may learn that saying “mommy” and “milk” will result in their acquisition.

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 domestic parrots trained to talk and are conditioned to associate words with specific:

  • Expressions
  • Gestures
  • Voice tones

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

Logic

Another effective way to determine human vs. parrot intelligence is by testing logical reasoning. A study in the journal Behavior explains that African Greys 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
  • 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 to play for older children. By age 5, children would understand and abide by the principle of “inference by exclusion.”

parrot brain size

Cleverest Parrot Species

Not all parrots have the same level of intelligence. Many factors come into play, such as:

Female parrots speak less than male parrots. Larger birds (with bigger brains) are known to be the cleverest parrots. Here’s a list of the smartest parrot species by intelligence:

Parrot SpeciesAverage Life SpanAverage Size
African Grey parrots40 to 60 years33 cm in length
Macaws50 years60 to 100 cm in length
Cockatoos20 to 60 years46 to 50 cm in length
Amazon parrots50 years28 to 33 cm in length
Conures30 years30 cm in length
Budgies5 to 10 years18 cm in length
Eclectus parrots30 years35 cm in length
Quaker parrots15 to 20 years29 cm in length
Parakeets15 to 20 years29 to 46 cm in length

What Are the Smartest Talking Birds?

The cleverest talking birds are:

  • African greys
  • Macaws
  • Cockatoos

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

  • African grey parrots, macaws, cockatoos, and Amazon parrots
  • Conures, budgies, and Eclectus parrots
  • Quaker parrots and 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.

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 thrive when raised and trained by an avian expert.

For the most part, they can figure out the most impressive tricks. However, their intelligence makes them prone to what avian experts call “stereotypes.”

Stereotypes are a series of neurotic behaviors usually brought on by stress and trauma. African grey parrots are emotional and get stressed easily, with tantrums comparable to toddlers.

Scientists believe that the sensitivity to stress in African grey parrots is similar to humans. Because of this, they’re smarter than other birds since it takes complex cognition to be as emotional as they are.

How Smart Are Conures?

Conures can learn tricks. They aren’t as talkative as other parrots but can still be trained to mimic.

They can understand simple orders. However, they have trouble with complex tasks that bigger parrots could easily learn. They’re more interested in physical activities and tricks.

That makes it easier to train a conure to be an acrobat rather than a scholar. Still, conures (especially sun conures) have good memories.

Some people may have trouble training conures and believe they’re less intelligent. However, conures are known to be obedient. When they don’t want to learn something new, it’s because they’re being lazy.

How Smart Are Quaker Parrots?

Quaker parrots are clever, learning to mimic more words than Amazon parrots. However, they aren’t considered the smartest parrots because they often forget what they’ve learned.

Quakers are known to be easy to train. Once they’ve learned something, they must continue practicing it, or they’ll lose the skill.

Their bad memory puts them near the bottom of the list compared to clever birds like African grey parrots and macaws. Nonetheless, they’re still smarter than other birds.

Only male quakers mimic humans because they mimic female parrots to attract mates. So, you’d expect males to be better talkers.

Parrots are intelligent because their very survival requires them to be that way. While parrots may not be smarter than humans and some other animals, they’re very clever.