If you are relatively new to sharing your world with a parrot, one of the first things you will come to realise is that your feathered friend is a smart cookie. He or she will quickly surprise you with what they can do, learn, and figure out. A quick search for “clever parrot” on the Internet will throw up dozens of YouTube videos that will astonish you. Parrots are astounding creatures when it comes to levels of intelligence amongst non-human animals.
People who share their lives with a parrot will happily wax lyrical for hours on end, describing the incredible things they have witnessed their feathered friend do. We are all too familiar with the comparisons made by scientists between humans and apes, often considered to be our closest “neighbours” in terms of evolution.
Although the abilities of apes have been extensively studied and often compared with that of human children, parrots have not been altogether ignored. Within the scientific world there is a growing body of research that recognises the potential abilities of parrots, and research studies now demonstrate that parrots can give the apes a run for their money in the intelligence stakes. So who are these smart parrots?
Probably the most famous and probably most widely studied of intelligent parrots is the late Alex, an African Grey, who in 1977 became Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s first parrot cognition subject. During pioneering research, Alex was found to be capable of many previously unseen feats. Not only could Alex verbally label over 100 colours, actions and objects, he could also count items and understood what zero meant. His intelligence didn’t stop there as he do simple arithmetic by adding together the numbers contained in two sets of objects. Alex’s other abilities included being able to indicate when something was bigger or smaller, and when things were different or the same.
There are however other clever African Greys. A research team in Austria wanted to see whether or not these parrots could use logical reasoning called “inference by exclusion”, something we humans are capable of. After finding that a group of 7 Greys had no preference for seeds or walnuts, a researcher placed both foods were underneath non-transparent cups, in full view of each parrot. One food was then secretly removed and shown to the birds. The African Greys then had to choose the cup that had the remaining piece of food. Although only one bird, Awisa was correct for three-quarters of test trials, this is on a par with similar studies with apes. Perhaps Awisa is another AG prodigy like Alex?
And it’s not just solo efforts. A research team led by Dr. Dalilah Bovet in Paris, France found that while some African Greys like to do puzzle tasks on their own, others can learn to work in pairs. By adapting a task originally designed to see if monkeys could work in teams, pairs of African Greys pulled on separate ends of a string to pull a tray with food reward towards them. The test could only be successfully completed if actions were coordinated, and it seems the parrots understood they needed a partner. Even more complicated was a second test where pairs of Greys had to collaborate using different actions. To gain a reward, one African Grey needed to step up on a perch to release a food tray, at the same time as its “colleague” pulled it. But it’s not all about the Greys…
Not to be outdone by the apes, Pipin, a Goffins Cockatoo, and several of his friends solved a sequential puzzle task involving 5 separate locks. These ‘toos used their problem-solving abilities to remove objects that involved turning a wheel, pulling a bolt, removing a screw, as well as lifting a latch. The birds had no training before the test and although it took almost two hours for Pipin to finally get to a reward he persevered. Quite contrary to the usual attention span of a parrot. The researchers from the University of Vienna, Austria, decided to push the cognitive limits a bit further by repeating the test, but scrambling the order in which the locks needed to be opened. This, along with leaving some locks disabled, proved to be no greater a challenge to the Goffins. They apparently retained their locksmith learning from the first test and applied it to get to the reward.
Again in Austria, the Goffins were put through their paces, but this time to see if they could resist the urge to eat, i.e. inhibit their own behaviour. The parrots were given a version of a task, first done with children many years ago. Children around four years of age were offered either a pretzel, a biscuit or a marshmallow and told they could eat it right there and then, or, wait quarter of an hour and get an additional treat. The children who waited for the better reward turned out in later life to be more successful, do better in school, and be healthier. So how would the Goffins do? Each was given a pecan nut and could either eat it there and then, or, give it back to the experimenter, wait a while (up to 80 seconds) and then get a cashew nut which they like better. All fourteen birds not only showed their self-control by waiting, but also that they could make an economical decision to gain a better reward. Perhaps like the children the Goffins will go on to do great things too.
Members of the crow family (corvids) have become famous for their ability to use tools, particularly New Caledonia crows, however research has discovered that parrots can also use objects as tools. A study in san Paulo, Brazil showed that Hyacinth Macaws can use pieces of wood as a wedge in their beak. To help get into difficult to crack nuts, the macaws would hold the nut in their beak or foot, slice a piece of wood from a perch, then use their tongue to position the wood in such a way that it stopped the nut turning or slipping. This also allowed them to exert more force on the nut shell, making opening much easier.
More recently, researchers from the University of York, UK, while studying Greater Vasa parrots, happened to notice that these birds were on their aviary floor apparently scraping shells by using the pips from dates or pebbles. The parrots appeared to be using these objects as tools to grind seashells, then lick the powder they had produced. A possible explanation for the behaviour is that the Greater Vasa’s were creating their own nutritional supplement, as seashells are a natural source of calcium, an important mineral for many parrot species. The cockleshell grinding was seen most often in the lead up to the breeding season, when laying hens are most in need of calcium. Interestingly some males even gave their pebble or date pit to a female, in most instances to one they had mated with. Seems Greater Vasa parrots are real gentlemen!
These are just a few examples that show how intelligent parrots are, and there plenty more out there. So where does this intelligence come from in creatures with brains often less than the size of a walnut? How can they compete with the apes in terms of their cognitive feats? The answer may come from a study published in 2016, where Czech Republic researchers examined not only the brain mass of birds including parrots, but also analysed the composition of bird brains.
It seems that although bird brains are relatively small in contrast to mammals including primates, they contain huge amounts of neurons. The density of these neurons is equal to, or in excess of, that found amongst apes and rodents. Moreover, a region of bird brains called the subpallium is much larger than previously thought and it is likely that this is linked to greater computing capacity. Also, because the neurons are jam packed together, signals between neurons don’t have to go far. This may speed up parrot information processing, and taken together may explain some of these amazing abilities and skills that scientists have found in parrots.
Bird brains can potentially provide greater cognitive power than that of the apes, showing that quality rather than quantity is why our avian friends are so intelligent.
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