Unravelling the Genius of parrots

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While the wind howls and the rain pours down, the Head Fairy is sitting with a mug of hot chocolate musing on the many and varied derogatory things humans associate with birds (I’m weird like that).  If something is “strictly for the birds” it is worthless. Being “hen pecked” is not great for your self worth.  Having an “albatross around your neck” is not a great omen for your future prospects. “Flipping” somebody “the bird” is just plain rude. There are “jailbirds” and “stool pigeons “– and don’t even get me started on being “bird brained”!

Calling someone bird brained is, in fact, a compiment – the more you read about the intelligence of birds (and parrots in particular) the more you begin to realise humans should aspire to be more like parrots. They are smart, they are capable of complex and abstract thought. They have culture. They have language.  They engage in behaviours long thought to be the exclusive domain of humans. Get ready to dive into a realm where the term "bird-brain" loses its sting and parrots emerge as true cognitive marvels.

Gone are the days when we thought of parrots as simple mimics that could be taught to repeat rude words at a family braai for everyone’s amusement. Extensive global research has flipped the script on avian intelligence, and the derogatory "birdbrain" label no longer holds water. Delve into the depths of parrot cognition, and you'll find a world of complex reasoning, advanced problem-solving, and intricate social dynamics. In this blog post, we're unveiling some of the latest research on parrot intelligence, shedding light on their remarkable capabilities, and uncovering the insights these feathered companions can offer into the evolution of how we view our feathered family members.

There are over 350 distinct parrot species in the psittacine family, each with unique traits and behaviours. From the smallest in the world (The Buff Faced Pygmy Parrot that weighs only 11,5g and is only 8cm long) to the largest (The Hyacinth Macaw that weighs 1,7kg and can be up to1m long – although the flightless Kakapo gives it a run for its money – weighing in at an astonishing 6kg but only around 64cm long ), they collectively form the Psittaciformes order – a group of tropical and subtropical birds that defy conventional notions of avian cognition. Parrots' reputation for mimicking human speech is just the tip of the iceberg. Their extraordinary memory, spatial awareness, and creativity go way beyond imitation, showcasing their cognitive depth and highlighting how little we really know about parrot intelligence and how much more we have yet to learn.

Humans have traditionally associated intelligence with brain size. Birds have small brains in relation to their body size. So why are we discovering now that they are much smarter than we ever thought? Scientific research has determined that nature has two ways to create brainpower.  It can fiddle with the number and size of neurons in the brain or it can arrange the neurons in different parts of the brain. We now know that nature has used both strategies with birds. Their brains may be small but they pack a big punch when it comes to intelligence because they have higher neuron counts and more neuron connectivity in their forebrain (Pallium).  In fact, some Macaws, Cockatoos and Corvids have twice as many neurons, with more connections in their brains - than monkeys. The placement and density of their neurons creates a predisposition for problem-solving, vocal mimicry, language acquisition, culture and even tool use. This unique neurological structure endows them with cognitive prowess that equals that of great apes! 

Parrots' intelligence is nurtured by their social lifestyle and prolonged lifespans (some can reach up to 80 years in captivity). This allows them to form deep bonds with mates and flock members, they communicate, cooperate, and play together. This intricate social network serves as a breeding ground for social learning and collaborative innovation, fostering an environment rich in mental stimulation.

The quest to understand parrot intelligence is no simple task. Researchers have only recently started to move away from “pigeon in a box” type lab experiments because the more we discover about bird behaviour the more we understand that the lab inhibits their ability to show off their real genius.  Researchers are moving into the field to record real behaviours under real conditions and the things we are learning are simply astounding. We are seeing proof almost every day that humans are not as unique as we thought we were. Reasoning, culture, complex language, kidnapping, cheating, manipulation, tool use, abstract thought, altruism, collaboration, art, make up, acoustic weapons, brain synchronization, cultural learning – birds exhibit all of these capabilities.

If you thought parrots were just colourful chatterboxes, prepare to be floored by their genius. Get ready to witness parrots in a whole new light!  Here are 15 things you should know about your pet parrot:

  1. Mirror, Mirror, Who's That Parrot? Parrots aren't just charming mimics; they're also self-aware. Parrots can recognize themselves in mirrors, a trait that demonstrates self-awareness, which is quite rare among animals. Some parrots even interact with their own reflection as if it were another parrot.
  2. Counting Feathers: Ever imagined a parrot counting? Parrots have shown the ability to count. Research has indicated that parrots can recognize and differentiate between different quantities, suggesting a basic understanding of numerical concepts.
  3. When Parrots Play Pranks: Yes, you read that right! Parrots have a sense of humour! Some species of parrots, like the Kea parrot from New Zealand, engage in playful behaviours like pulling tourists' shoelaces and imitating their laughter.
  4. Mimic Masters of All Sounds: Beyond imitating distinct individual human speech, parrots are the ultimate sound mimics. They replicate everything from ringing phones to barking dogs, and even the sound of a sneeze, proving their vocal virtuosity.
  5. Einstein's Cousins? Parrots don't just solve problems; they invent ingenious solutions. Parrots exhibit creativity in problem-solving. They've been observed using tools in the wild, like using sticks to extract insects from tree bark. This resourcefulness translates to puzzle-solving skills when presented with enrichment puzzle toys.
  6. Abstract Concepts Unravelled: Some parrots have demonstrated an understanding of abstract concepts. For example, researchers have found that African grey parrots can grasp the concept of "same" and "different" when presented with different sets of objects. They have also shown that they can understand that an object exists – even when they can’t see it.
  7. Long-Term Planning: Certain parrot species, like the New Caledonian crow, can plan. In a famous experiment, these crows were shown to use tools to obtain food, then save those tools for future use.
  8. The Eclectus Napkin Trick: Who knew parrots could be neat freaks? Eclectus parrots have been observed using leaves as napkins. After consuming juicy fruits, they use leaves to clean their beaks, showing a degree of cleanliness and innovation.
  9. Playful Innovators: Parrots love to play and explore. They're known for inventing their own games with objects they find in their environment, demonstrating their curiosity and inventiveness.
  10. Music Aficionados: Parrots are known to enjoy music and rhythm. They might bob their heads, flap their wings, or even mimic musical tunes and rhythms.
  11. Gentle Beak Control: Some parrots have incredible control over their beaks. For instance, some parrots can gently crack open a nut without damaging the seed inside, showcasing their fine motor skills.
  12. Learning Through Observation: Parrots are skilled observers. They can learn from watching others, whether it's imitating actions, solving puzzles, or even mimicking human speech..
  13. Collaborative Problem Solvers: Parrots exhibit team spirit as flocks come together to tackle challenges, from finding food sources to evading predators.
  14. The Social Gossip Network: Ever imagined parrots gossiping? They are known to gossip about each other and to share information about things like food sources and potential threats, which highlights their social communication skills.
  15. Escape Artistry in Feathers: Prepare to be amazed by parrots' escape skills as they are known to be notorious escape artists. They unlock cage latches, manipulate locks, and even open windows to make a break for it, making them the true Houdini’s in the avian world.

 So what happens if you have a pet that is this smart? How do you help it live its best life? Essentially you will need to provide eight types of enrichment to maintain a happy and healthy Parrot brain.

  1. Swings and Perches: (for exercise/balance and co-ordination). A variety of perching options should be placed around the habitat. They should vary in size and material and should include flat perching. Natural materials, such as untreated wood, provide safe play options and are often irregular in shape which helps with foot health.
  2. Foot Toys: (for dexterity and co-ordination). Small twigs and sticks or balls that roll work well.
  3. Interactive Toys: (for social learning). Birds are social animals and most pet parrots live solitary lives. You are their flock. It is crucial that you introduce some learning activities that you can participate in together. This can involve simple commands like “step up” or teaching colours or foods using flash cards/childrens shape and colour toys/ ipad toddler learning programmes/buttons to be pushed etc.
  4. Shreddables/Destructibles: Parrots are hard wired for destruction – it is crucial for them to pick at things with their beaks to keep their beaks trimmed and to create nesting materials.
  5. Preeners: Parrots preen all the time and this activity must be allowed for in their habitat.  Preening toys are slightly different than SHREDDABLE toys because they allow the bird to use the digging and smoothing action of preening. Toys like this would be mops of rope or fabric swatches and they should be placed all around the environment.
  6. Foragers: In the wild, parrots spend the majority of their time foraging, a behaviour integral to their survival and cognitive health. Wild parrots do not have their food handed to them.  They have to work for it. Captive parrots need activities that encourage finding hidden food. Techniques like setting up multiple food stations, hiding food under covers or in creative packages, and offering toys to replicate the foraging experience. Foragers prevent boredom, help with beak health, satisfy natural curiosity and promote mental agility.
  7. Puzzles: Puzzle toys are a critical item in any parrot habitat.  They allow for behaviours that no other toys will.  Puzzles activate real problem solving behaviour.  They allow for collaborative/social learning and they help prevent repetitive behaviours like pacing and over preening. Because Parrots are so smart, giving them an outlet for their mental stimulation will actually help reduce stress.
  8. Noisemakers: We all know about the dawn and evening chorus of birdsong - recent research is begining to teach us lots of new things about the noises birds make. We used to think birds only made noises to attract mates or find each other in a big flock.... now we are learning that sound is a much bigger part of being a bird than we ever imagined. I can be used as a weapon, used to do a "vulcan mind meld" with a mate and identify specific individuals in a group.  It is a huge part of daily life so it is essential that birds have noisy things around them. It helps them feel comfortable, satisfies curiosity and makes them think they are not the only noise in the wilderness. The cage should be filled with a variety of different sound making objects/toys to keep your Parrot happy.

Parrots are living evidence that intelligence isn't confined to humans alone. These vibrant birds aren't just pets; they're cognitive marvels with an unmatched ability to entertain, intrigue, and challenge our understanding of intelligence. Whether they're solving problems, cracking jokes, or planning for the future, parrots stand as proof that the world of avian intelligence is as vibrant and diverse as their colourful plumage.

We hope you've relished this deep dive into the captivating universe of parrot smarts. If you've found this article as enthralling as we find these birds, please share it with fellow enthusiasts. We'd love to hear your thoughts and stories – have you witnessed the brilliance of a parrot firsthand? What's your favourite parrot species? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Thank you for being a part of our exploration of parrot intelligence. Stay tuned for more insightful articles on these remarkable creatures, their health, and their connection to our world. Until then, keep cherishing the wonders of the parrot! 🦜

Buy me a puzzle toy 3

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