Inside the Animal Mind
Who's the Birdbrain?

Birds may have a reputation for being less than geniuses, but researchers are discovering that some are remarkably smart.

Some birds have the capacity to recognize, count, or name different objects.

Ravens, for instance, have the ability to solve difficult puzzles, such as untangling a knotted string to free up a tasty treat or figuring out how to steal fish by hauling in an angler’s untended line. And, as shown in the first part of NATURE’s Inside the Animal Mind, crows on the remote Pacific island of New Caledonia have learned a skill that people once thought only primates could master: the use of tools. The birds use long, specially chosen twigs to spear the plump grubs that hide deep beneath the bark of rotting logs.

Some birds have the capacity to recognize, count, or name different objects.

Raven antics and New Caledonia’s clever crows have helped make people much more willing to admit that many animals, including birds, are quite intelligent. Dolphins can follow complex instructions, for instance, while orangutans learn complex tasks, such as washing clothes by hand, after just a few tries. And even pigeons and parrots have shown an extraordinary capacity to recognize, count, or name different objects.

But no bird has done more to give a whole new meaning to the phrase “birdbrain” than Alex the African Grey parrot. More than 20 years ago, researcher Dr. Irene Pepperberg of the University of Arizona began systematically studying Alex and several other African Greys, parrots that are remarkable mimics, to understand avian intelligence. “Before I began my studies, I knew that parrots could reproduce the sounds of human speech, but that the general belief was that such vocalizations could not be meaningful,” Pepperberg has written.

Today, her work with Alex has challenged that notion. For instance, Alex can name more than 40 objects and understands the concepts of “same” and “different,” “absence,” “quantity,” and “size.” Alex, Pepperberg says “has mastered tasks once thought to be beyond the capacity of all but humans or certain non-human primates.

  • Kittycat

    This dosen’t say much but its still good, (I guess!)

  • BirD

    Wow, never knew that about birds, being a bird lovar….very interesting

  • Future PBS worker

    I guess birds ARE really smart. ☺ ☻

  • MEiSHA

    well i dnt like birds so its not thAt serius..

  • bird brain

    birds are smarter than me

  • Ravenna

    My husband absolutely loves birds, so to irk him on I usually refer to them as bird-brained. But truth be known, I always knew that birds were intelligent creatures.

  • K12 kid

    I read a cool article about birds and they are really smart.

  • OHVA kid

    You have a really cool artical about birds. They are really smart and they can learn very well.

  • Mrs. BirD

    I love birds, this article really taught me something. :-)

  • Deinna

    Wow. Birds are so smart. I never knew that. Being an animal lover I should of known that. Well now i know. I’m one step closer to becoming a zooligist. This is a great site to learn about animals, who ever is reading this

  • Benny Lava

    This article is great! I love how the information is presented!

  • Animal a

    This article is actually pretty nice i like it!Thanks PBS.i actually learned somthing new!

  • Sierra

    I know that birds are smart so people need to put new stuff on animals.

  • Lela

    I like it. I have a pet duck, could we learn about ducks?

  • ohva student

    these facts are really fasinating!!!!!!

  • CAVA kid

    This is a cool website I love birds!!!:)

  • Yahnaijah( a CAVA student)

    Cool!I read an article about seagulss and how they can hold grudges!

  • Cava Kid 2

    Awesome

  • Cava Kid 3

    This was really cool! I always thought birds were stupid. I was wrong.

  • K12

    very interesting ,i was surprised!

  • jekabirD

    birds can only do what they see

  • Sam

    Parrots, for instance, are extremely smart creatures, to be able to mimic, talk and understand different languages. Every living creature is smart as they are products of their own environment. Smartness for animal life however, is mainly about survival.

  • duddy

    this is cool

  • Dante

    I though birds were supid but i was wrong.

  • marisa

    This should say more, but still really helpful.

  • anrichter

    AWESOME! I love animals,and so this is very informative. I loved it.

  • K12/BOS kid

    Wow…never knew birds were smart. huh.

  • ashlee

    ilove this website its awesome

  • destiny

    well actaully birds are really smart.

  • Isabella

    this is an okay website but not really helpfull need more info

  • Margaret Scrooby

    Next some one calls anybody a bird brain, tell them its a compliment.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.