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Grey Parrots are Smarter than Your Toddler

Grey Parrots are Smarter than Your Toddler

Humans are animals. We’re apes. We’re highly sophisticated, yes. But we’re just apes. I think people often forget that and end up placing homo sapiens sapiens on a pedestal. OK, so there are the great apes. They’re pretty close. But surely no non-primate animal could possibly exhibit human-like abilities. As it turns out, an animal people previously considered pretty dumb are showing signs of being pretty smart.

We’ve known that grey parrots were quite smart for some time now. We know that these birds have impressive counting abilities and verbal prowess. Now a recent study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has shown that grey parrots have the reasoning abilities of a three-year-old human.

This is something hinted at previously, but this study attempted to address criticisms. According to Smithsonian.com:

In several previous experiments, researchers claimed they’d revealed the ability of parrots to make inferences based on their skill in completing an extremely simple task. The animals were shown a pair of closed canisters, one with food inside and one empty, and the top of the empty one was briefly opened. Afterward, when they were given the chance to choose one or the other, they reliably selected the one with food. Critics, though, said that this didn’t necessarily demonstrate any sort of inferential reasoning—they could simply be avoiding the empty canister, rather than realizing its emptiness implied there was food in the other.

This time, however, the researchers didn’t open the can. They shook the can so the parrots could hear the food (walnuts, in this case) or not. This alone would be open to the same criticisms as the previous experiments. That’s why the researchers did something a bit different:

To confirm that the parrots were actually making inferences about the location of food, and not merely avoiding a silent box, the researchers introduced one more variation to the task. Instead of using the actual canisters to make the noises, they wore small speakers on their wrists that emitted shaking noises. In some cases, they shook the box in their right hand, but emitted the shaking noises from a speaker on their left wrist; in other cases, they played the sounds from the correct side. The parrots only made the right selection on a consistent basis when the sound lined up with the shaking—so they were making an inference not based on a visual or aural cue alone, but from noting the connection between both.

Whoa! Do you know what this means? A bird can show abstract, inferential thinking. No other non-primate species has demonstrated this ability. Not only that, but humans are incapable — incapable! — of this kind of reasoning before the age of three. This bird is smarter than your baby!

Grey parrots, of course, aren’t the only super smart avians. Crows can use tools and recognize your face, for crying out loud! I guess the next time someone calls me a bird brain I’ll take it as a compliment.

Related posts:

6 Species Proving Humans Aren’t the Only Intelligent Ones on the Planet

Elephants Ace Intelligence Test

Chimps Can Guess What You’re Thinking

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Image credit: Papooga

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189 comments

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8:00AM PDT on May 18, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

8:00AM PDT on Mar 23, 2013

Thank you Mindy, for Sharing this!

1:45AM PST on Feb 26, 2013

Re smart birds - I could tell tales all day and all night about that wonderful tovi, but last night I saw somethng amazing on British TV. There is a marvellous series about penguins, filmed by cameras inside dummy penguins. The adult Emperors had left for the sea, leaving a huddle of youngsters to fend for themselves. They wer atacked by a giant petrel, a predator, and formed a defensive ring. A fiesty litte Adelie Penguin, half their size, saw thier predicament and went out of his way to drive off the petrel!

A wild bird with nothing to gain coming to the rescue of birds of a different species! Truly we underestimate birds!



1:41AM PST on Feb 26, 2013

I could tell so many stories about clever birds and birds who made it plain that they regarded cages or aviaries as a safe haven with food that it's hard to know where to start. With many species there is no such thing as being 'free as a bird in the air'.

When I had an aviary I refused on principle to buy wild-caught birds, but sometimes parrots imported for the pet trade ended up with me anyway. Most notable was a little tovi - a miniature green parrot, whom I was informed by my reference book would socialise well with budgies. He has a giant personality and he wasn't having that - he tried to bite my budgies but he attached himself to me! He became so tame he would ride around on my shoulders out of doors.

One day he flew into a tall tree. I tried to call him down. He called back and stayed put in the tree. I thought I would have to bring his cage with food and water - just wait till he gets hungry because he knows where the food is! I turned my back and he must have thought I was leaving ,because he launched himself out of the tree to crashland on my shoulder and ride indoors! Then he pushed himself inside my hand as I went to pick him up and stepped back inside his home - his 'cage' - where he showed that he felt secure. And this was a bird who started life in a Central American rain forest!

4:03PM PST on Feb 25, 2013

Seren, (Welsh foir Star!)

I used to prize tameness above talking ability because a tame bird's personality shines through and I thought talking birds didn't know what they were saying. However a lot of parrots do in fact know what prhase accomanies what person or happening. So they are linking sounds to events or people.

More tomorrow...I've often witnessed the attitudes birds take to 'freedom' - not what you might think! They normally like being safe where the food is! This takes some time to explain....

12:23PM PST on Feb 25, 2013

Thank you very much for this!

Nicky, your account of Georgie the parrot had me laughing out loud! As a life-long bird person, I've known many very smart birds, and know even more stories about their intelligence!

9:36AM PST on Feb 25, 2013

We have 2 Greys. One of them is quite smart, but the other is, sad to say, smarter than I am. Prettier too. 8^)

4:32AM PST on Feb 25, 2013

That's why they're our friends

8:49PM PST on Feb 24, 2013

thank you

8:49PM PST on Feb 24, 2013

thank you

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