parrot intelligence facts

Why Are Parrots So Intelligent? Parrot Brain vs. Humans, Dogs, Cats

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

Parrots are intelligent because 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 clever, but they also fail the mirror test like dogs, cats, and human toddlers. Likewise, not all parrot species have the same cognitive abilities. African grey parrots are the smartest of all. They have better mimicry, memory, and understanding of language than any other bird species.

Parrot Intelligence Facts

Parrots are arguably the most intelligent type of bird. The reason behind this lies in their unique brain structure. However, you don’t need to look at parrots under a microscope to realize how clever they are. Just take a look online or at your own parrot and you’ll see them using this intelligence 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.
  • Associate body movements. So, if you lift your arm, a parrot will deduce that its wing should be lifted to match.
  • Remember features of certain animals. So, 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 and change them if they join a new group.

That’s to name a few ways parrots display intelligence. Why are parrots so clever?

Parrot Brain Facts

Did you know that parrots’ brains have a similar structure to human brains? According to 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 is the one responsible for:

  • Language
  • Memory
  • Spatial awareness
  • Mimicking

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 connect 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 humans. 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, crow, 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.

what are the smartest talking birds?

Parrot Brain Size Facts

Parrots also have a brain uniquely shaped to be smart. Specifically, parrots are good at talking because they have asymmetrical brains. The left hemisphere specializes in language, which 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 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.

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.

Are Parrots Smarter Than Cats Or Dogs?

You may think parrots are the cleverest animal 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 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. How can we compare like with like?

There is an experiment that puts animal intelligence to the test. It’s used as a benchmark when comparing how smart these animals are. This test was designed to evaluate 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 cannot 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 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 tried to bite the mirror. The aggression grew 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 well-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 network 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 could mimic us, 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, 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 larger brains than parrots, which means we have more neurons. However, the neurons in a parrot’s brain are far denser than ours. As such, they have more connections between different parts of the brain. This allows 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 sheer number of neurons that humans have still give 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 certain ways:

Self-Awareness

As shown with the mirror test, self-awareness is a good benchmark for intelligence in animals. The brain structure of parrots is at least similar to human toddlers. 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 once they’ve reached a certain degree of brain development. Parrots, on the other hand, cannot grow beyond this limitation with age.

Language

Aside from self-awareness, language is also an effective 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 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 their acquisition. Here, the child has been conditioned to associate those words with an outcome. It doesn’t 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:

  • Expressions
  • Gestures
  • Voice tones

Only one African grey parrot, named Alex, has used language that resembles 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

Logic

Another effective 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 struggled to understand the game’s concept and become frustrated.

The game became easier to play for older children. By age 5, children would understand and abide by the principle known as “inference by exclusion.” The study showed that parrots had the cognitive reasoning abilities of 5-year-olds.

parrot brain size

Cleverest Parrot Species

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

  • Species
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Size
  • Average life span
  • Personality

Female parrots are known to speak less than male parrots. Larger birds (with bigger brains) are known to be the cleverest types of 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 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 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 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. 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 have trouble with complex tasks that bigger parrots could learn with ease. They’re more interested in physical 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. They never forget the tricks they’ve been taught.

Some people may 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 clever. They can learn to mimic more words than even Amazon parrots. However, they still aren’t considered the smartest parrot because they often forget what they’ve learned.

Quaker parrots are known to be 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 bad 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.

Only male quaker parrots will mimic humans. This is because, in the wild, males will mimic female parrots to catch their attention. That helps to attract a mate. So, it’s reasonable for males to be better talkers.

Parrots are intelligent because nature has required them to be. It’s enabled their survival and reflects in their brain structure. While parrots may not be smarter than humans and some other animals, they are very clever.