Recent studies in avian intelligence have shown that birds are much more intelligent than previously thought. Some bird families are now known to have brains that process information in a similar manner to the great apes and Parrots, Cockatoos, and Corvids have brain to body ratios that rival the great apes. The traditional linear ladder of intelligence with primates on top has been thoroughly debunked by rigorous cognitive studies of birds.

Corvids, parrots, and hummingbirds have given up songs for a complex vocabulary of calls that function as a language. Recent studies have shown that vocal learning occurs routinely in populations of wild parrots. Yellow-naped Amazons that roost together share a regional dialect of the “wa-wa” call with parrots that roost on the boundaries of two dialects, being bilingual. Dispersing juveniles learn the distinct   call of their new roost. In Australia Ringnecks and Galahs modify their contact calls to converge on the contact calls of conspecific flock members indicating socially driven vocal learning. Several species of parrots including Orange-fronted Parakeets and Spectacled Parrotlets have unique contact calls specific to individual birds in the flock. Female Budgerigars prefer bonding with males that use their specific contact call. As more species are studied, the evidence mounts that wild parrots have and know each other’s names.

Tool use has been reported among many avian species but New Caledonian Crows and Palm Cockatoos actually manufacture their tools. New Caledonian Crows make tools from either Pandanus leaves or sticks. The production of these tools requires multiple steps, indicating that the crow has a mental image of the tool before making it. The design of the Pandanus leaf tool varies regionally across New Caledonia in time and space indicating cultural transmission and social learning. In controlled experiments, New Caledonian crows have refashioned tools to solve problems. Male and female Palm Cockatoos cooperate to build a multilayered platform at the bottom of their nesting hole. Both sexes collect sticks, defoliate them, remove bark and side branches. The male breaks the sticks into the needed length by using his beak as a saw and then hands the stick to the female who splits it to provide a flat surface for the platform. Male Palm Cockatoos are the only non-human animal to make a tool to accompany their singing. The male fashions his drumming tool from a stick, adjusting its length to match his needs, and then drums the stick against a branch to accompany his vocalizations while fluffing up his feathers and raising his crest.   When a female appears, he extends his wings, inviting her to join him. Palm cockatoos are found in the Australian Cape York Peninsular and in the lowlands of New Guinea, but only the Cape York population is known to use the drumming tool, indicating that the behavior is cultural, not innate.

It is ironic that we are just learning about the amazing intelligence of many bird species at a time when thirty percent of all bird species worldwide and thirty-seven percent of North American birds are threatened with extinction. Because of their highly adaptable behavior and preference for open habitats or forest edges, most corvid species are stable, but species that have specialized habitat requirements or restricted ranges are in trouble. Persecution by humans in agricultural areas remains a problem and corvid numbers are declining where agricultural is spreading. Parrots and Cockatoos are among the most threatened avian families due to habitat destruction and capture for trade. Parrots are vulnerable to the loss of fruiting trees, especially in the tropics where they rely on a succession of fruiting species, and to the elimination of nesting sites, particularly where they require old growth trees for suitable nesting holes. Because of their beauty and intelligence, parrots are among the most sought-after birds for the extensive illegal bird trade. We are losing these magnificent creatures just as we are beginning to truly know them.

~ Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS