Saturday, 2 March 2013

List of The Smartest Birds: A Guide to Avian Cognition

The Smartest Birds
Humans have always been fascinated by birds.
The author with a Maroon-Bellied Conure.
 Parrots and their allied species are
 well known for their intelligence and adaptability
Source: Austin Hackney (author)
The main reason for that is their enviable power of flight. There is no doubt that since the days of the mythical Icarus, humankind has always sought to emulate the astonishing aerial ability that the birds so ably and naturally display.
The other significant factor in this perennial attraction to birds is their intelligence.
Animal intelligence is usually assessed by humans in two ways: one is how close to our own behavior the animal's behavior is. The other is how well adapted that animal is to its own environment.
The first is a typically anthropocentric viewpoint, although not without interest. The second is more scientific and fair-minded. However, it's not my purpose here to debate the meaning of intelligence, so we'll say that both approaches can be useful.
Some of the birds in this list, such as the pscittacines (parrots) and corvids (crows) you'll probably already be familiar with. Others, such as the ptilonorhynchidae (bower birds) and ploceidae (weavers) you may be meeting for the first time.
One thing to be clear about is that all these birds are deserving of our respect and protection.
They show us that we are not so unique on this planet as some would have us believe.
One thing that the intelligence of other animals can teach us is that they have a right to be here, too.
African Grey Parrots: Birds That Can Talk!
African grey parrots are very smart - but are they the smartest birds?

Birds: The Smartest Animals On The Planet
As a class, Aves (the birds) are arguably the smartest on the planet, as they have adapted to every environment apart from the deep ocean. They are hugely successful in evolutionary terms and are doing better than perhaps any other animals in adapting to human impacts on the global environment.
We've all heard of clever crows and talking parrots but now let's take a look at a list of the smartest birds on Earth - and the amazing things they can do!

Blue and Gold Macaws
Macaws are among the most recognized parrot-like species and
 are well-known for their ability to mimic human speech.

The Top 10 Smartest Birds
Here they are, in no particular order as they are each experts in their particular fields...or forests, swamps, mountaintops, lake sides...

The Smartest Of All Birds?
The Raven may be the most intelligent of all the birds on Earth.

The Raven
The raven (corvus corax) is an extraordinary bird that has been maligned in much European folklore but considered a powerful and cunning creative force in Native North American traditions.
The raven is a pretty smart bird any way you care to look at it.
It is a passerine - a perching bird - and is not only the largest of its kind but is literally a real high flier. There are records of raven in flight at over 19,600 feet (6,000 meters) in the icy altitudes above Mount Everest in the Himalayas.
It is big, robust and strong, with a plumage of glistening black feathers. It has a heavy bill, also black and a ruff of feathers about its neck that are known as the hackles.
Its broad wings have long 'fingered' primaries (the flight feathers) which spread out when soaring.
Its tail, which is wedge-shaped in flight, contributes to this majestic bird's astonishing acrobatics when airborne: ravens commonly loop, spin and roll in flight, sometimes free-falling only to swoop suddenly upwards again before hitting the ground.
On the ground they walk and hop on long legs. They have a confident if slightly waddling stride, seeming to strut about imperiously.
Their eyes are jet black beads and bright with intelligence.
Bernd Heinrich: The Mind of The Raven
The intelligence of ravens and the nature of their cognitive powers is now considered beyond dispute.
The scientist and researcher into avian cognition (or how birds think) who has made the greatest contribution in this field in Bernd Heinrich. At the end of this article you can see my personal review of his famous book ' Mind of The Raven.'
In the course of his work, he spent decades studying the behavior of ravens both in the wild and in captivity. With a combination of love and respect for these creatures and rigorous scientific methodology, he has come to the inescapable conclusion that ravens can, indeed, think. They can also think in ways that enable them to imagine the possible consequences of future actions and make decisions based on those extensions of thought.
His observations and experiments have revolutionized the way that we understand not only avian intelligence but our own as well.
Watch the following two short videos to gain an insight into the work of Bernd Heinrich and the remarkable mind of the raven, possibly the smartest bird in the world:
Problem-solving Ravens

Raven Steals The Catch

A Highly Sociable Bird with Complex Language
This handsome bird has a high brain to body ratio, one of the key biometric
 indicators of developed intelligence.

African Grey Parrot

The African Grey Parrot (psittacus erithacus) is an iconic bird made famous in literature as the constant companion of 'Long John Silver' in Robert Louis Stephenson's Treasure Island and in households throughout the world for its remarkable powers of speech.
If you are under the impression that these grey parrots are mindless mimics then you may have to reconsider, as the latest scientific research shows that they can not only memorize a vocabulary of 500 words but can use them in novel combinations to express real needs and comprehension.
In other words, they understand what they are saying.

African Grey Parrot Flying
A beautiful African Grey Parrot in full flight through the jungles of the Congo.
Source: Roberto01 CC-BY-SA-3.0-DE via Wikimedia Commons
The African Grey is a medium-sized bird whose exquisite plumage is an almost uniform wood-ash gray, a little darker on the wings which have black tips. It has a white face and forehead and a startling scarlet tail.

While it is an able flier, it spends most of its time climbing amongst tree branches in the jungles of its native Central African Lowland Forests; feasting on nuts, fruit and leaves which it harvests with its sharply de-curved bill and then, balancing expertly on one foot, uses the other as a hand to hold its food.
African Greys live in large flocks with complex social structures.
They have a very wide and subtle range of natural vocalisations which they use to communicate: courting their mates, instructing their young and exchanging information about social changes and deaths within the flock or the location and availability of prized food sources.
African Grey Parrot Talking AND Understanding?
The African Grey Parrot has long been kept as a pet and admired not so much for her colorful plumage as for her ability to mimic human speech. Only recently, scientists have been discovering that there may be more going on in that walnut-sized brain than we ever thought.
It seems that a Parrot can actually learn to understand its speech to the same level as a three year old child.
Not so surprising if you have an appreciation of the fact that parrots have naturally evolved a complex language system of their own. When they learn human speech, they are simply learning another one - much as you or I might learn Spanish or Italian.
Watch the following video for an astonishing insight into Dr. Pepperberg's famous research into the intelligence of these beautiful birds:

Dr. Pepperberg with Alex and Griffon The African Grey Parrots

The Illegal Parrot Trade
Parrots are now in grave danger in the wild as a consequence of the illegal pet trade.
Thousands of birds, crammed into tiny crates with neither food nor water, are confiscated each year at the borders.
Many more are successfully smuggled out of Africa to North America and Europe. Up to 70% die in transit, stressed and starving.
How to Recognise an Illegal Parrot
If you are offered a parrot for sale or know of someone selling a parrot, you can tell if it is a legally captive bred bird because it will have a 'closed ring' on its leg.
A 'closed ring' is exactly that: a small plastic ring that has no break or seal and can only be applied shortly after hatching. It will have a legal registration number on it that can be checked with the authorities.
The person selling the parrot should also be able to produce documentation and the lineage of the parrot's stud.
If not, there are no excuses and the person should be reported to the police without delay.

This illegal trade (all these birds are protected under the CITES International Treaty) has a huge negative impact on wild bird populations in addition to causing stress and premature death to literally tens of thousands of birds each year.
The good news is that there are some wonderful rehabilitation centers that successfully return a large proportion of these birds to the wild and you can help with just a little of your money or time and goodwill by joining The Conservation Action Network.
If you do want to keep a bird as a pet, make sure that you buy a captive bred animal from a licensed breeder and learn in-depth about your pet's needs and care before you go ahead. It is a huge responsibility and not to be undertaken lightly.
It is also worth bearing in mind that well-cared for parrots can live up to 60 years and form strong emotional bonds with their owners. It is a responsibility you may have to make arrangements for even after your death.
Remember: a parrot is no 'dumb animal' - it's a very smart bird.

Rescued Grey Parrots Awaiting Re-release Into The Wild
These Grey Parrots have been rescued from smugglers and are in a rehabilitation center from which they will be re-released into the wild. Unfortunately, many birds die in cruel conditions before they are discovered.
Source: Austin Hackney (author)

The starling (sturnus vulgaris) is an extraordinarily intelligent bird.
This may be linked, as with so many of the corvids and psittacines, to evolutionary forces driving the development of their intricate and complex social lives. Their intelligence has evolved much in the same way as our own cognitive and linguistic abilities have evolved in consequence to similar adaptive pressures.
Starlings are social birds.The nature of the the group is the nature of the starling. In the wild, you will never see a starling on its own.
European Starling
A beautiful European starling shows off her lovely, iridescent plumage in the sun.

European and North American Starlings
Starlings have adapted to take advantage of many diverse habitats, including near-desert environments, tropical forests and open grasslands.
These birds were originally native to Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia but were introduced into North America by the early colonists. They have now established themselves on that great continent to the extent that many consider them to be indigenous species.
European and North American starlings are instantly recognizable by their exotic plumage which shimmers with iridescent blues, greens and pinks over a dark base, spotted with white.
They are medium-sized passerines who carry a sturdy body with relatively short wings and tail atop powerful deep red-coloured legs. They have a long, straight and sharply pointed bill, ideal for probing into the ground, cracks in stones and under bark.
They are generally confident, even near human habitations and can be observed experimenting with new behaviors in order to exploit an unexpected food source.
Starling Feeding Young

An adult starling feeds a juvenile. This looks like bread, which should never be put out for birds as it can block the crop and be hard to digest. This young starling will be fine, however, as they have evolved to be generalized and adaptive feeders.

The starling is an opportunistic feeder (she'll eat whatever she can get!) although in the spring and summer, most will prefer to catch worms, insects and other small invertebrates. In the autumn and winter when such food supplies are short, she'll readily switch her diet and eat berries, fruit, nuts and seeds.
Many starlings will readily visit a garden feeding station or bird table.
Flocks of Starlings
Starlings are highly gregarious birds, enjoying each other's company and living in large flocks most of the year.
They also have a well-developed and complex language system to communicate with one another. Their society is highly structured with a clearly established 'pecking order' or hierarchy.
In the UK their numbers have been in rapid decline but through most of Europe and North America, huge flocks can still be seen forming nesting colonies or migrating, feeding and roosting together.
Some starlings have been kept as pet birds and readily learn the patterns of human speech. In the natural, wild state, they incorporate the songs and calls of other birds into their own repertoire.
Where they have established themselves in urban environments, they have been heard and recorded using cellphone ring-tones, car horns and other modern sounds, weaving them into their songs.
A Murmuration of Starlings
By far the most impressive visual display of just how smart these birds are is in the phenomenon known in ornithological circles as a murmuration.
It is one of the most awesome sights to see. A murmuration of starlings is an event when literally thousands upon thousands of these birds fly together in almost impossible physical proximity and in a display of breath-taking co-ordination, form rapidly shifting patterns that fill the sky.
Watch the video below to see a murmuration building up and then going into full flight. It will blow your mind!
Starlings At Otmoor

Starling Science
The commentary in the video gives us some insight into the purposes of these murmurations but do we understand just how - in purely physical terms- the birds are able to perform such a feat? The answer is no, not yet. However, recent researches using computer modelling analysis have proved very interesting.
The explanations that emerge from these analyses draw more on particle physics than biology.
Critical transition equations can be used to scientifically describe the flight co-ordination taking place in a murmuration of starlings.
So each individual starling is connected to each member of the flock and as movement occurs a series of critical moments is created which lead to complete transformations of speed and direction that are instantly transmitted to each bird.
We don't really understand how this can happen, how the critical state is initiated or maintained. But what does it really mean?
It means starlings are pretty darn smart, that's what it means!

Bowerbirds: Artistic Appreciation and the Language of Love
The vogelkop bowerbird (amblyornis inornata) expresses an astonishing range of behaviors in the construction of its bowers - or as they have properly been called, its 'seduction chambers.'
When it comes to the art of love, it's a pretty smart bird!

Beautiful Bowerbird

This beautiful fawn-breasted bowerbird is a typical example of its kind. These are nature's only known artists who use their aesthetic and craft skills to entice a mate - apart from ourselves, of course!
Source: Dick Daniels CCASA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Vogelkop Bowerbirds
There are many species of bowerbird that occur throughout New Guinea and northern Australia.
Some are dull in color, others bright as parrots.
They are all forest-dwellers, at home in the dense, damp growth of green foliage and towering trees that make up the Australasian rainforests.
The vogelkop bowerbird is a smallish bird, olive-brown in color, somewhat stout in body and sporting a short, thick bill.They have blue legs.
Males and females are almost indistinguishable at first glance but on close inspection it can be seen that the female is a little smaller and has a lighter hue on her legs than the male.
Bowerbirds live mainly on a diet of fruit but they will, as occasion arises, also take a certain amount of nectar, some seeds and even small invertebrates.
The scientific name, inornata, is from the Latin meaning 'unadorned.' Some ornithologists have speculated that this bowerbird has lost the once bright plumage of its cousins as it has been rendered unnecessary by the evolution of its artistic abilities. Personally, I don't think there is sufficient evidence to support this theory. It seems more likely that the vogeltop bowerbird has always been dull to keep it safer from predation.
The Vogelkop bowerbird compensates for its relatively dull plumage - which serves better to camouflage it from predators in the forest - by building and adorning hugely complex structures called ‘bowers.'
Quite how astonishing this is has to be seen to be believed. Watch the following video to see how the vogeltop bowerbird constructs and decorates his bower and then seduces his mate. These are truly astonishingly smart birds.
Sir David Attenborough & Bowerbirds

Bower Birds: The Art of Seduction
In the behavior of these extraordinary creatures we see the beginnings of a sense of artistic appreciation and creativity. It's another special aspect of our own behavior that seems not to be quite so unique after all.
Is there any fundamental difference between a human male bringing flowers and chocolates, lowering the lights and playing just the right kind of music to seduce his potential mate and the similar, even more graceful activities of this beautiful and intelligent bird?
I don't think so.

Garden Robin: Making Friends With The Enemy
The Garden robin (erithacus rubecula) is one of the most popular and iconic birds in the western world.
There are numerous stories that include him as a character and he is to been seen every year at Christmas, wrapped in a tiny woollen scarf and sitting atop a spade in a snowy garden - the little scarf you will only see on greetings cards, of course!
The Robin
The 'garden' robin has adapted well to the urban and suburban environment, learning to profit by human habitations and activities.

European Robin
The European robin is the most commonly recognized and well-liked bird in English gardens.
The robin is a small bird, with an olive-brown back, whitish gray belly and a rufous breast - more orange in hue than a true red (unlike the American robin, turdus migratorius).
The robin is squat in shape and quite rounded with short wings and a medium length tail. It has a small, dark colored bill and large, black, shiny eyes.
The male and the female are alike in appearance and, unusually, both sing. The male will sing in the spring to attract a mate, define a territory and defend the nest. Rival males will fight aggressively, sometimes to the death.
The female takes up the song in the autumn, once the fledglings have flown, to defend her territory through the long winter months.
The robin dines on small insects and invertebrates such as beetles and ants. She is also fond of worms if she can get them. Unlike her cousin, the blackbird (turdus merula) she will not dig or turn over leaves and bark to find food. She prefers to follow other birds and mammals and pick up insects and beetles disturbed by their passing or revealed as they dig the ground.
It is an adaptation that leads to her bonny habit of closely following gardeners - especially when the earth is being tilled. And that brings us to just why the robin is such a very smart bird: she has learned to make friends with the enemy.

English Woodland - Doomed Under Concrete?
According to some reports, if the current rate of urban expansion continues unchecked, the British countryside as we know it will be gone by the end of the century.

According to several reports from the governmental Environment Agency and the United Nations, urban areas have more than doubled in size since 1945 and the spread of new housing developments, industrial zones, airports and other built-up areas could lead to the complete loss of the British countryside by the end of the 21st century.
All that would remain would be small parks and leisure grounds.
Clearly, the UK is a small island and just can't sustain an uncontrolled expansion in human population.
Why The Robin Is Such a Smart Bird
The robin is so smart because she has learned to adapt her natural behaviors to the human environment.
She thrives in English gardens because they furnish her with an excellent mix of habitats, including tree cover, shrubbery, wet ground and open spaces such as lawns.
She builds her nests in cracks in walls, holes in old buildings and in trellises covered with climbing plants.
She has also endeared herself to people by merit of her boldness, her courage and her companionship.
There is hardly an English person with a garden, or who lives near a public park, who is not familiar with and fond of this little bird. She will readily come to the feeding table and, once her trust has been gained, will come and feed happily from your outstretched hand.
In the video below you can see my daughter encouraging a robin to hand feed. She's holding some mealworms and the noise she is making is the sound of a juvenile robin, which reassures the adult bird that she is no threat.

Robin Feeding From Hand

Many people believe that they have a robin that returns to their garden year after year. Upon asking, you can often be told by these folk that the robin has been living in or visiting their garden for upwards of twenty years.
Alas, this is not true. Oh, it's true that a robin has been seen but it is not the same robin.
While ringing records from the British Trust for Ornithology do show that rare specimens can reach up to 8 years old, the average lifespan of a wild robin is about 2 years and many will not survive their first year.
It is a real pleasure to have them in our gardens but let's remember they are only there because we've started destroying their woodlands. Robins are very smart birds.
If only we could be smarter.

Weaver Birds: Architects and Builders
African weavers (ploceidae) are the most extraordinarily talented builders, constructing elaborately woven nests.
Weavers can be found all over Africa apart from the northern countries. They live in both the open lands of the sub-Saharan regions and the dense semi-tropical and tropical forests.
There are even a few species that can be found in that wonderful 'ark of evolution,' Madagascar and into southern Asia.

A Layard's Weaver

A Layard's Weaver (ploceus cucullatus nigriceps) from Nigeria in Africa.

The African weavers are related to the sparrows.
This is clear in their anatomy. They are about the same size and general shape as a sparrow, although they are frequently far more colorful and have a greater variety of bill shapes.
Some bills are stout and heavy (such as those of the finch family) and especially adapted to cracking open the husks of seeds. Other bills are long and sharp, evolved to support the insectivorous diet of some of the species.
Those who live in the open grasslands of Central Africa tend to have the stouter, seed eating bills. Those in the southern forests, the insect-eating bills.
Sexual Dimorphism in Weaver Birds
Most species of weaver displaysexual dimorphism (males and females look different) with the males being flamboyantly bright in their spring and summer colors but the females remaining dull and inconspicuous all year round.

Male and Female Chestnut Weavers (ploceus rubiginous)

These chestnut weavers show the typical feature of sexual dimorphism, in which the male has colorful plumage and the female has duller feathers.

The female is in many ways the most important, as she will lay the eggs, incubate them and rear the chicks. For this reason she cannot afford to increase her risk of predation by coming out of camouflage.
The male, although he is responsible for designing and constructing his elaborate nest, need only to inseminate the female. Attracting the best mate is therefore of paramount importance to him and so it is worth the risk for him to put on a good display.
Males that survive beyond the breeding season moult in the late summer and regrow feathers identical to those of the females. This is called eclipse plumage.
Wonderful Weavers: Very Smart Birds
What makes the weaver birds so smart? The clue is in the name.
Weavers build the most astonishing nests by interweaving strands of grasses and other vegetation into elaborate orbs, replete with an entrance tunnel. They also tie knots. And if they are unsatisfied with the results of their labors, they will untie the whole thing and start again. They are dedicated architects and craftsbirds.
This is a skill that is only partly innate. The young birds are not so good at it but they get better with practice. They try, make mistakes, remember, observe others, rethink the design, try again and so on until they have mastered their art. Just as you or I do.
Some species of weavers, such as the southern masked weavers (plocetus velatus) build huge condominiums of many hundreds of nests which demands not only weaving skills but levels of cooperation and communication that should be the envy of any town planning department!
Would you like to see the weavers at work? Then watch the following video and you'll discover just what kind of smart these very smart birds are capable of.

Weavers Building Nests

I'd say that was pretty smart for a bird with a brain that isn't much larger than a raisin.

The Secret Life and Language of Chickens
Are you surprised to see chickens on this list?
You might be but not if you have ever had the good fortune to get to know any of these astonishing birds.
Backyard Chicken

One of our backyard chickens, a Light Sussex. Chickens are the most common - and among the most intelligent, birds on the planet.
Source: Austin Hackney (author)
Chicken Chat
The chickens have retained, even after many centuries of selective breeding for quite different traits, a range of remarkable adaptations evolved in their wild ancestors - the red jungle fowl.
Chickens are highly intelligent, inquisitive and social birds.
Not only can they recognize individual humans, remember places and logical series of events but they have a complex linguistic system of over thirty known 'words.'
Did you know that most English speakers only use about 300 different words in normal conversation throughout their lives?

Red Jungle Fowl

The Indo-Chinese Red Jungle Fowl is the ancestor of all the modern breeds of domestic chickens.

Origins of Farmyard Fowl
The ancestors of the birds that we now know as farmyard fowl or chickens were first domesticated about 5,000 years ago in south-east Asia.
The ancestor species of all modern breeds is still around, living wild in the forests, scrub and grasslands of the Asian subcontinent. This bird is the Red Jungle Fowl (gallus gallus).
It looks very much like a chicken, understandably, although it is smaller and more slender than most modern breeds. The male, in season, has splendid colorful plumage and a bright red comb and wattles.
However, it is to many of the domesticated breeds that we turn to discover just how smart this wild bird may also be.
Domestic Chicken Breeds: Smart Birds
Chickens spend most of their time on the ground but they can fly. They have short, powerful wings with very strong pectoralis muscles (the flight muscles in the breast) which enable them to make an explosive burst of almost vertical upwards flight in order to escape from predators.
Most chickens have fairly stocky bodies, comparatively small heads at the end of long and agile necks and large, strong feet.
Their bills are relatively short and only slightly curved.

Chickens Are Good Pets

Chickens make great birds to have around because of their intelligence and their naturally bold and inquisitive natures. Two of our Sussex are very curious about the camera!
Source: Austin Hackney (author)

This bill shape allows them to consume a wide variety of different vegetable and animal foodstuffs. On the whole they will peck at seeds and beetles and pick them up one at a time. They are fond of slugs and worms, too. I have also seen our chickens hunting, catching and eating mice and shrews.
They use their strong, scaled feet to scratch at the ground and reveal tasty morsels that they then peck up with rapid, jerking head movements.
Roosters have sharp spurs at the anterior of their 'ankles' which they use in aggressive combat over mates and territory.
And of course, they are prolific egg layers and produce all year round, except when moulting.
Free Range Chickens

There are over 100 different breeds of domestic chicken. There is an increasing trend to return to keeping them free range which is better for the birds and for the quality of the produce.

Today there are at least 100 different breeds of domestic chicken.
There are some 16 million individual birds.
That makes them the most common bird species on the planet. Many have not been treated well - and still aren't in the increasingly small number of places where battery farming is permitted. Many, like ours, are doing very nicely for themselves, enjoying a form of free-range captivity with the best food, attention and healthcare humans can provide.
All in all, in evolutionary terms, they are doing very well. Sometimes being domesticated can be a smart move.
But what is it really makes the domestic fowl, the backyard chicken, so smart? It is undoubtedly more than their adaptability, although that clearly plays a part. There is a secret life that chickens lead and will only be revealed to someone who takes the time to listen and observe.
Watch the following short video and you'll find out what makes chickens smart. Prepare yourself for a few surprises!
Amazing Chickens

Clearly, chickens are very intelligent and sensitive creatures, so give them plenty of space and attention. And think twice before you buy that bland, over-packaged chicken meat from a supermarket or battery farmed eggs.

The Black Heron: The Umbrella Bird
The Black heron (egretta ardesiaca) sometimes called the black egret and popularly known as the umbrella bird, has evolved an astonishing methodology for maximizing its fishing catch in the shallow waters of the mud pools of Botswana and Madagascar.
The Black Heron (Egretta ardesiaca)

The black heron is a beautiful, intelligent and adept hunter.

It is a large bird with sooty black plumage and the typical long-legged and elegant body of the heron family. The legs are especially distinctive as they are resolved in large, bright yellow feet.
Flowing from the top of the head and down the back of the highly mobile, swan-like neck is an elaborate crest of black plumes which are used in display. It also has ahackles and narrow, extended feathers on its back.
The tail is relatively short and stubby but forms a perfect unity when the wings are outstretched in the hunting mode, which will soon be explained.
It has a long, straight, harpoon-like black bill that is ideally adapted to snatching small fish from the shallow waters of the ponds, lakes, river banks and marshes where it hunts and feeds.
The black heron can be seen hunting alone and in groups of up to 200 other birds.
It is its peculiarly intelligent hunting technique that gives this bird her position among the smartest birds.
Just watch this, it's truly an amazing adaptation...
Black Heron Hunting

How about that for a smart fishing tactic?
I know carp fishermen that took years to figure out that the best place to bait was in the shade of overhanging trees.
They should have asked a black heron for a few tips first. She's a smart bird.

Crows, birds related to the ravens, are thriving in human-modified environments. This is only possible as a consequence of just how smart they are.
Along with the ravens, the crows are among the largest of the passerines(or perching birds) even if many of the American species are smaller than their European and more exotic cousins.

Clever Crow

A crow perches high on a branch to scan the surrounding landscape.

Crows, birds related to the ravens, are thriving in human-modified environments. This is only possible as a consequence of just how smart they are.
Along with the ravens, the crows are among the largest of the passerines (or perching birds) even if many of the American species are smaller than their European and more exotic cousins.
Natural Habitat And Diet Of Crows
Before humans came along (about 200 thousand years ago - the birds have been around for 150 milliony ears) the natural habitat of crows was mainly deciduous woodland and peripheral forest.
The common crow is a large, black bird but still much smaller than the raven. In new plumage just after completing a moult, shimmers of green and blue can also be seen in the wing feathers.

Carrion Crow (corvus corone)

The carrion crow positively sparks with inventive intelligence and creativity.
The crow's tail is rounded at the extremity rather than wedge-shaped as with the raven and she also has slightly shorter legs. Her bill is stout and powerful and has a fringe of tiny black feathers at the base.
Despite being naturally woodland birds, the crows are famous for their adaptability and learning skills. These traits enable them to live in a wide range of urban, human-made environments.
The common or 'carrion' crow (corvus corone) will, as her name suggests, happily eat carrion - the dead and decaying corpses of other animals. Ecologically this performs a useful function in 'cleaning up' after a death. Crows can often be seen feasting by the highway, both on road-kill and on the leftovers at the back of a drive-in or roadside diner.
Their natural diet includes both animal and vegetable stuff. They'll eat nuts, seeds, insects, invertebrates, fish and molluscs as well as mammalian remains. Occasionally, if food sources are very scarce, they will also hunt.
American Crow

The American crow, smaller than its European cousins but still a smart bird.
In their natural woodland habitat they are known to use tools. For example, much as chimpanzees do, they will adapt and use sticks to probe into termite or ant nests and extract the occupants for dinner.
Watch the following short video to get a fascinating and mind-bending insight into the remarkable intelligence of these clever corvids.
If Hitchcock's movie 'The Birds' got you worried this will blow your fuse!
Only kidding, there is nothing bad about these crows, just watch and see for yourself...
Crows Make And Use Tools...and Vending Machines!

Don't you think it's time to give a bit more respect to these creatures that share their planet with us? Do we really think that we are somehow special, even smarter than these other animals?
It seems to me an indefensible arrogance to think so.

Hummingbirds: Masters of Precision Flight
At the start of this article we began by noting the one of the main reasons why humans have always been fascinated by the birds is because of their ability to fly. Undoubtedly, flight is the single most useful adaptation and one that has effectively ensured the success of the class aves throughout the world.
Flight has enabled the birds to colonize every corner of the planet from the deepest forests to the highest treetops and remote, precarious cliff-edges.
Of all the various aerial skills displayed by any of the bird species that we know of (there are 9,600 known species of birds) for sheer flight control, stamina and precision, none can compare to the agility and mastery of the hummingbirds.

Hovering Hummingbird

Hummingbirds are evolved to fly in all directions including backwards. They can hover, perfectly still in mid-air.
How Do Hummingbirds Hover?
Hummingbirds are able to hover in flight, perfectly still in the air apart from their rapidly rotating wings.
That is the key to their aerial skill. Most birds flap their wings in a 'rowing' type motion, gaining lift on the downbeat and allowing the air to pass through between the primary feathers on the up beat.
Hummingbirds have evolved particular and unusual proportions to their wing anatomy. Internally, the shoulder and elbow joints are uncommonly close together with extended, fused bones of the manus(the bird's 'hand').
This adaptation allows them to rotate their wings giving an aerodynamic effect similar to that of a helicopter. But better.
The hummingbirds can fly long distances, too - up to three thousand miles in one stretch during migration.
The World's Smallest Bird
They are tiny birds. The smallest of their kind is the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) from Cuba. It is just 2.5 centimetres long!
They are all agile aerial acrobats and precision fliers. Typically in flight their wings move so fast that they are an almost invisible blur.
They have long, tube-like bills that they use to suck up the nectar from flowers.
Watch the short video below to see a slow-motion movie of a hummingbird in flight. The precision is astonishing. I think you'll agree that when it comes to flying, the hummingbird is one smart little animal.
Slow Motion Hummingbirds in Flight

Our Only Home

We have only one home, our possibly unique planet. We need to learn how to look after it and share it with the other animals that have evolved here alongside us.
We Reach Our Roost
Our flight is over and we are home to roost. Our list of the smartest birds is at and end.
It seems clearer than ever that we do nothing but expose our own lack of intelligence and sensitivity if we use the term 'bird brain' to refer to someone who is a bit dumb.
It is quite clear that birds, with their well-evolved and relatively large brain-body ratio, are a lot smarter than many people have given them credit for.
The list of the ten smartest could have been a list of twenty or thirty or more. There are some 9,600 species that we know of - every now and then new ones are still being discovered. They are all pretty smart.
Places You Can Learn And Help

BirdLife International is a global alliance of conservation organisations working together for the world's birds and people.

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is an international charity working globally towards our mission of saving species from extinction. Committed to conserving the diversity and integrity of the life on earth, Durrell has a worldwide reputation.

·         Cornell Lab of Ornithology

At the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we use science to understand the world, to find new ways to make conservation work, and to involve people who share our passion.

They are also all under threat of extinction sooner or later if we continue - erroneously thinking ourselves to be the most important and smartest animals here - to greedily consume the Earth's resources and destroy its natural habitats.
We have only one planet so rich in biodiversity and still so much more to love and learn. If we mess up ain't nobody gonna come and fix it for us. The responsibility is ours, yours and mine. Other animals share this planet with us, they have evolved with us and they have every right to be here. We all share a common ancestry and a common home. We're family.
If we were smarter, we'd respect that. And do something about it.
There is a lot that you and I can do and if we all play our part, I really am optimistic for the future.
Education and action are the keys. In the blue box to the right you'll find links to lots of information and resources to help you.
Let's learn from the birds and get smart.

My Review of 'Mind of The Raven' by Bernd Heinrich

Buy 'Mind of The Raven'

The "mind" of the book's title encompasses all behavior and experience in these birds' lives. Heinrich details innumerable observations and experiments which he conducted on the subjects of raven feeding and educating their young, cooperation, hunting, adoption, dominance, sensory perception, individual recognition, communication, fears, interaction with other animals, caching, deception, play, intelligence, and emotions. Heinrich seems to possess an insatiable -and infectious- curiosity about these magnificent birds, which is demonstrated in his exhausting and endlessly inventive experiments.


  1. Thank you for "10 Smartest Birds" page. I often think about bird intelligence. I first started thinking about this when I observed crows on my way to and from work. They would be eating roadkill in the road, but would fly or move out of the way of my car as I approached. If the roadkill was on the side of the road, they would remain as my car approached. They are amazing in that they seem to anticipate the cars that are approaching and react accordingly.

  2. Hi Flora,

    Thank you for your comment. I'm delighted that you enjoyed this page and found it interesting. Birds are one of my abiding passions and I'm also very interested in how we perceive and assess their intelligence.

    Thanks for sharing your crow story. there's no doubt that the corvidae are among the smartest birds on the planet.

    All the best to you. :)

  3. Thanks for the great article guys.

    My dad saw an Australian crow struggling to eat a stale bread roll, he was amazed when the crow took the roll to a puddle, soaked it in the water and then easily ripped the softened bread apart. They're amazing creatures!

  4. Hi Simon,

    Thank you so much for the compliment and for that great contribution.

    Yes, that kind of behavior in which a crow clearly 'figures something out' like that has been studied in some detail now and it is a sure sign of a kind of imaginative power in the avian cognition that demands a reassessment of how we view our own intelligence, too.

  5. Wow. I never really thought about birds that way. I knew they were smart but I didn't think they were THAT smart. Such fascinating creatures. Especially the Corvidae family.

    1. Hi and thank you so much for your comment! Indeed, the more you look into it, the more extraordinary information there is to find out about birds.

      One of the nice things about studying them is that they can be found almost everywhere - even in the heart of the biggest cities and their behavior is always fascinating to watch.

  6. Thank you for your great site and also your plea for protection of our habitats. It is wonderful to see other species getting the respect they deserve. However, please withdraw the often repeated assertion that people commonly use only 300 words in conversation in their lifetimes. This is only true of small infants. It is easy to see that this assertion is incorrect, simply by looking at the number of words I just used in this short comment (about 50 different ones, at a guess). Can you imagine getting through even a day of conversation with just 6 times this number? As an aside, verbal ability is a poor indicator of intellectual ability. Memory, perception, analytical reasoning, empathy (the list goes on and on) - all these dwarf linguistic ability. Sadly, we as humans overvalue the things which seem to make us different from the other species. Cheers, Rob

    1. Hi Rob,

      Thanks for your comment and I'm glad you enjoyed this article. The only thing I'm a bit bemused by is your request that I "withdraw the often repeated assertion that people commonly use only 300 words" as I have been over the article several times and nowhere do I make that assertion. So I can't really withdraw an assertion I never made!

      I do mention that African Grey Parrots have been shown to be capable of memorizing a vocabulary of 500 words and use them with the same facility of comprehension as a three year old child. Is that what you meant?

    2. In the section "Chicken Chat", says English speakers use only 300 words in normal conversation throughout their lives.

    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    4. Fellows, you are absolutely right - I do say that in the Chicken Chat section, my apologies!

      To clarify, it is true that many English speaking people have vastly more extensive vocabularies. Some studies suggest that undergraduates on entry to University have a ready command of up to 20,000 words.

      However, it remains true (according to academic research) that *most people* - so that's folks without a college level education - only use about 300 words in daily speech. That doesn't mean they don't know more words, only that they don't need or use them for their daily requirements. I think that's the point.

      Capacity and usage are not the same.

      Does that make it clearer?


All comments and contributions to the discussion are welcome! And I always reply to comments, too.