Don’t Call Them Birdbrains

Fortune, a 22-year-old female African grey parrot, gets miffed when my attention drifts to the large blue Amazon parrot, Pablo, two perches away. “Hey baby,” she calls to me, following up with a series of sound effects: the beep of a cell phone, the meow of a cat, and mimicry of some, um, less polite bodily functions.

I’m at the ticket area of Sarasota, Florida’s Jungle Gardens, a 10-acre zoological and botanical preserve where scores of parrots and other tropical birds divide their time between scheduled performances and unscheduled clowning around.

Next to Pablo and Fortune is Floco, at more than 50-years-old, a granddame among parrots. This bird, who made her home in a sports bar before arriving at the Gardens, will occasionally squawk, “Strike one.” and “You’re out!” She can also sing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the Gardens receptionist proudly tells me. When she’s in the mood, of course, which she isn’t at the moment.

For more than 100 years, scientists dismissed such vocal feats as meaningless noise.

Erich Jarvis, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at North Carolina’s Duke University, whose research focuses on songbirds, is helping to change that mindset. Jarvis says that the ability of some birds to mimic sounds and string them together is very much the same ability that, in humans, gives rise to language. Rather than mindless mimicry, it’s complex cognition.

“I’m not trying to make this argument,” says Jarvis. “I actually discovered the argument from studying these birds.”

Dr. Jarvis led an international consortium of 29 neuroscientists whose research shows that birds’ brains, although different in structure, are comparable in function to those of mammals. That research, published in the journal Nature, as well as other studies, suggest that some birds — parrots, songbirds and hummingbirds, in particular — may be brighter than most mammals.

So why does conventional wisdom still equate the birdbrain with the supremely stupid?

“You have to break down what I like to call egotistical barriers between our place on this planet and that of other animals,” says Jarvis. “There’s this almost knee-jerk reaction even in the science field when you start to compare humans with other species that there’s something really different about humans.”

Differences exist, of course, and they are obvious. But so are the similarities — for those willing to take a closer look.

The World’s Most Famous Brainy Bird
Alex, an African grey parrot trained by Harvard scientist Irene Pepperberg, was able to, not just mimic words, but have meaningful, if limited, conversations. He could count, identify shapes, objects, colors, and do simple math. “We’ve always said that his cognitive processing was equivalent to that of a five or a six year old,” says Pepperberg.

Alex died in September 2007 and Pepperberg mourned him almost as she would a human friend. “We were colleagues,” she says. “It was a very strong partnership. I couldn’t have done what I did if he hadn’t been willing to come along for the ride.”

She says though that Alex was no different in his mental capacity than the other African greys in her lab: Griffin, who has been learning many of the skills that Alex made famous, and Arthur, who prefers to spend his time on the computer, playing with a program designed for the birds that Pepperberg dubbed “InterPet Explorer.”

Pepperberg says that the younger birds learned a lot from Alex when he was alive even though he tended to be bossy and found ways to get the attention of his human friends to focus back on him.

“Alex was always interrupting all their sessions,” says Pepperberg. “He would tell [Arthur and Griffin] to talk clearly or ‘say better.’ If we were doing colors, he’d say, ‘no you tell me what shape.'”

When I remark that Alex sounds like quite a character, Pepperberg replies wistfully, “He was.”


On my second trip to Jungle Gardens, I meet up with Fortune again in the posing area, where patrons can get their pictures taken with their choice of parrots and cockatoos. Fortune belongs to the same family of parrot as Pepperberg’s birds.

“She picks things up instantly,” says animal curator Jenny Henry as she perches Fortune on my arm. “We’ve had her come up with weird sentences like, a couple of months ago, she started belting out, ‘The baby needs a diaper.’ Somebody must have said it in the gift shop when she was there.”

Like Pepperberg’s African greys, Fortune has learned to link the appropriate sounds with the comings and goings of her non-feathered friends. Fortune will also say, “Good morning,” when Henry arrives at work and “bye-bye,” when someone leaves. Imagine what she might be capable of if she’d had the same training as Alex, Griffin and Arthur.

A Skill Possessed Only By Humans—and Maybe, Starlings.

European starlings were introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800s, and quickly crowded out native species, often taking over their nests. In wheat fields, they yank out the plants to get to the seeds. They also help themselves to cherries, grapes, and cattle feed (where they’ve been observed picking the most protein-rich bits for themselves).

“Everyone hates them,” says Tim Gentner, Ph.D., a psychologist who studies these birds in his lab at the University of California at San Diego. “There are pesticides marketed against them. But they’re successful for a reason. They’re clever little buggers.”

Gentner has demonstrated that starlings may have an ability that hasn’t been seen in any other animal except humankind.

“They can count up the number of different kinds of sounds,” says Gentner. “And they can remember that count. And they can compare that to some other string that has similar or different numbers of sounds and tell you whether those match.”

This is similar, Gentner explains, to the way a human understands a sentence even if a phrase is inserted in the middle. “I could say something like, ‘The man has a yellow hat.’ Then I might say, ‘The man, who George knew, has a yellow hat.'”

Inserting phrases in sentences forces us to keep track of earlier ideas in our memories. Humans do this with ease. Other animals aren’t supposed to be able to hold those ideas in memory and link them later.

But, using a simple keyboard mounted in the starlings’ cages, Gentner has taught his birds to signal their recognition when a “phrase” of twitters is repeated, even if it occurs in a different twitter “sentence.” This, he says, demonstrates an ability not unlike a human’s to recognize variations of the “yellow hat” phrasing above.

“So, five little twitters and then do something else for a few seconds and tell me whether or not you just heard five twitters again.” The birds peck the appropriate button on their keyboards if they do.

Almost all Gentner’s captive starlings recognized the acoustic patterns. Their feat caused a stir in the scientific community when it was published in the journal Nature, with some big names embracing the findings as evidence that birds have a language talent that only humans were thought to possess.

Creating Tools “On The Fly”  

A popular video on YouTube shows black crows in Japan carrying walnuts in their beaks, dropping them into traffic, then waiting for cars to run over the hard shells to crack them open. When the cars stop for pedestrians or at a red light, the crows waddle into the crosswalk to retrieve the nutmeats, pecking away at their lunch until the light changes again.

Alex Kacelnik, a professor of behavior and ecology at the University of Oxford, says this same behavior also has been observed in crows in Berlin and California.

“Many animals, for example, seagulls, know how to crack things by lifting into the air and dropping them, ” says Kacelnik. “But in this case, the trick is different because, what the crows have learned — we don’t know if they look at the traffic light or they look at the cars themselves — is positioning nuts on the roads where trucks would normally be and cars would pass too.”

Their unique problem-solving skills should dispel any lingering doubts about crow smarts. But New Caledonian crows go the Japanese crows one better.

Found only on the isolated tropical islands of this South Pacific territory, New Caledonian crows look much like other crows around the world but are a separate species. Scientists studying New Caledonian crows in the wild found that they regularly manufacture tools from grass stems, sticks, and leaves. And they appear to adapt the kinds of tools they make, depending on the tasks.

“From our present knowledge, no other species, including the great apes, uses such a variety of tools and with such intensity and seems to depend on tools to the extent that these animals do,” says Kacelnik.

Professor Kacelnik studies captive New Caledonian crows in his Oxford lab so he’s familiar with their talents. But Betty, one of his lab crows, still managed to surprise Kacelnik and his associates.

Betty wanted to access a small pail of food sitting deep inside a clear tube. To pull it out of the tube, she would have needed a hooked tool but another crow was hogging the only hook around. So, Betty took a straight piece of wire and, while the cameras were rolling, spontaneously bent it into a hook. Then she yanked out the bucketful of goodies by its handle and chowed down.

“We thought maybe, at the beginning, what she was doing was repeating some movement that she normally did with natural material that ended up producing a hook,” says Kacelnik. “Because of that, scientists, being always crafty about these things, gave her the opposite task. She was given a bent wire that was too short and she had to unbend it, in order to make it longer and reach.”

Betty had no trouble figuring that out. She quickly unbent the wire and got her goodies, proving that her first foray into novel tool-making wasn’t just repetition of an instinctual act.

Professor Kacelnik says there is no doubt that such behavior is evidence of intelligence.


My last stop in Jungle Gardens takes me far from the squawking, screeching, squealing, parrots and cockatoos to a row of pens where birds of prey are kept: hawks, owls, and Jenny Henry’s prize pupil, Rigor Mortis, or Mortis for short, a common black vulture. She’s been working with Mortis for about 2-1/2 years.

Wearing a leather falconer’s glove, Jenny calls, “Mortis, up.” He doesn’t want to do it at first, probably because I’m right at his cage door. After a minute or two, he’s obeying Jenny’s commands to jump up on the perch, over to where she points, and to touch the perch with his beak.

“Mortis, glove,” says Jenny. He hesitates, then jumps on her wrist. He’s not a bad looking chap, as carrion birds go, with his grey head, black body and small inquisitive eyes.

Jenny says that Mortis knows his colors and proved it last Easter with colored eggs. “I tell him to touch yellow and he’ll correctly pick the yellow egg.”

He tilts his head to look at me warily. It’s clear that I’m making him nervous so I say good-bye.

But as I exit past the flamingoes, the cockatoos, the parrots, and the various wild birds who fly in for a nibble or a dip in the ponds, something that Dr. Tim Gentner said when we were talking about his work with starlings comes back to mind and makes me smile:

“There’s a lot of intelligence out there that just flies under the radar.”



"Alex was always interrupting all their sessions," says Pepperberg. "He would tell [Arthur and Griffin] to talk clearly or 'say better.' If we were doing colors, he'd say, 'no you tell me what shape.'"