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Home > News & Events > MAARSianChronicles > Issue 10: December 2004 > Did You Know?: Parrot Intelligence – How Smart is Smart?

Did You Know?

African Greys are considered by many to be the most intelligent of the parrots. (Photo by Krista Menzel)

African Greys are considered by many to be the most intelligent of the parrots.

(Photo by Krista Menzel)

Parrot Intelligence – How Smart is Smart?

by Eileen McCarthy and Krista Menzel

Parrots are extremely smart even though their brains are small when compared to those of the most intelligent mammals such as the great apes, dolphins, and elephants.

But parrots' relatively small brains are highly developed and, like everything else about their bodies, have evolved an efficiency and economy that facilitates flight navigation, complex communication through language and behavior, sophisticated social relationships and culture handed down from generation to generation, seasonal and varied food seeking, acute senses of sight, hearing, and touch, multi-step problem-solving abilities, and incredible flexibility and adaptability to new and unfamiliar situations. In other words, size doesn't matter when it comes to the avian brain.

The birds at The Landing constantly demonstrate their intellectual prowess to MAARS Volunteers, often to their dismay. Rio, a male Moluccan Cockatoo, likes to let himself out of his cage by manipulating the complicated latch with his versatile beak. Lonely in his freedom, he then moves from cage to cage, letting out other birds to keep him company on his adventures. Members of the MAARS flock also make their feelings known with appropriate verbal expressions they've learned from Volunteers and each other. For example, one day, Blue and Gold Macaw, Banjo, seemed to have had enough of the construction noise coming from MAARS' neighbor, and screamed, "Knock it off!"

So how smart are parrots?



Many scientists believe the intellectual capacity of parrots to be comparable to that of a two- to five-year-old human child.




Parrots are quick studies, often learning words and tricks for the sheer pleassure and challenge. In captivity they require a stimulating environment to prevent boredom.




Dr. Irene Pepperberg's research at the University of Arizona has shown that when presented with novel items, her African Grey Parrots are able to articulate — in clear English — what is similar about the objects, what is different, and of what "matter" they consist.




Tool use was once credited only to humans and their ancestors; the discovery of tool use in other animals redefined "intelligence." Black Palm Cockatoos in Indonesia have been observed beating sticks of wood against tree branches to ward off unwanted intruders.




The avian brain in most species processes more visual information than in mammalian species — parrots are capable of seeing far more detail at greater distances. They can also distinguish colors in the ultraviolet range, and such feather coloration — invisible to the human eye — may play an important role in courtship and mating behaviors.




Parrots — and many other birds — engage in complex social behaviors and relationshhips and must develop finely-tuned survival skills. These are learned traits that parrot chicks and juveniles acquire from their parents, older siblings, and other flock members during a prolonged developmental period.




Intelligence fosters ingenuity, which translates into adaptability and survival of species. Some parrot species have proven themselves to be incredibly ingenious; wild flocks of escaped Budgerigars (Parakeets), Lovebirds, Quakers, Amazons, and Conures have thrived and formed small breeding flocks in climate-friendly regions of the U.S. after escaping from captivity.


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